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The Recall Is the New Normal

• September 17, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Headlines of Gray Davis' defeat in The Daily Californian. (PHOTO: TIM BERGERON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Welcome to the age of the permanent campaign, where recalls are easy to trigger than ever before and politicians need to worry about not just tomorrow’s war chest, but also today’s.

Last week, in a first for the state of Colorado, two state legislators were recalled by their constituents. Senator Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) and Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) were sent packing in large part due to their votes in favor of new gun laws passed and signed into law earlier this year.

As I’ve noted elsewhere (here and here), recall elections are a rarity in the United States, but they’re becoming increasingly common. There have only been 38 state legislative recall elections since states first began adopting the procedure in 1908. Seventeen of those—nearly half—have occurred just since 2010. And some of them, particularly the recent Colorado ones, would have to be labeled as political successes for their backers. A vocal and passionate minority (in this case, gun owners) wanted to punish some lawmakers for their votes and send a message of intimidation to others. They did that.

Officeholders in recall states would be wise when casting votes to consider not only how those votes will be perceived in the next election, but how they are perceived today.

My guess is that the recall will only become more popular in the coming years. Now, I remember quite a few people predicting the same thing after the successful 2003 recall of California Governor Gray Davis. In fact, it would be another five years before anyone would attempt to recall a state legislator, and another three years after that until an attempt to unseat another governor. Why would it not catch on then but catch on now?

Well, a few things have changed in the past decade. For one, a lot more states are now under one party control than used to be the case. Forty-three state legislatures are now run by a single party, the highest number since 1944. For another, most state legislative parties have polarized and continue to do so. This combination of factors—single-party rule and more polarized, programmatic parties—creates an environment where being in the minority party is a lot more costly than it used to be. Minority party legislators and voters have fewer ways to slow down or stop legislation they don’t like, and a lot more legislation is coming their way that seems completely hostile to their beliefs.

The recall is a solution. Not for everyone, of course—it’s only on the books in 19 states, but all 19 of them are under single-party rule. And despite what some may wish, recalls are generally not limited to cases of criminal or unethical behavior. Only eight states have specific grounds for allowing recalls, and most of those are fairly vague. For the most part, what makes for a recallable offense is whatever a majority of voters who show up for the election determine it to be.

So given that majority parties are increasingly steering states in directions that minority party members don’t like, and that the recall is a proven method of not only purging a few politicians but getting others to change their behavior, we should expect to see a lot more of them in the near future.

Indeed, as Reid Wilson wrote, this is basically the true establishment of the “permanent campaign.” Officeholders in recall states would be wise when casting votes to consider not only how those votes will be perceived in the next election, but how they are perceived today, since it doesn’t take long to trigger a recall. They’d also be advised to maintain large campaign war chests and to foster ties to national party organizations, interest groups, and major donors who can help them out if they inadvertently wind up the target of a recall campaign. And even if they have four years until the next scheduled election, they should treat every vote they cast as potentially their last.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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