Opinion Editorial on Recall
Recall is powerful weaponJoshua Spivak
Republican Assembly members have proposed giving voters a new weapon against misbehaving elected officials. A look at the use of the recall in other states shows that its impact on the legislature is likely to be minimal, but it may have a real effect on local governments.
The proposed law is focused on the state government, though it would provide for localities to adopt the recall provision as their own. Under current law, it is actually not clear if local governments are allowed to hold a recall or if any has ever been held. However, opening up local government to a recall law would be the key provision.
This is due to the fact that while recall has gained famed for its use on the state level — such as the unsuccessful one in Wisconsin last year and the successful one in California in 2003 — it is mainly used against local officials. In 2012, there were at least 168 recalls or resignations in the United States. All but six — all in Wisconsin — took place on the local level. In fact, in the history of the U.S., only 42 state officials, including 36 legislators, have faced recall elections.
For New York, this means that mayors, city council members and school boards are the most likely to face the wrath of the voters. A big part of the reason is that local officials usually require fewer signatures and are less likely to be elected on a partisan basis.
This ties, in turn, into a possible surprising fact about recalls — they are generally started for policy, not partisan, reasons. Despite the fears that they engender partisan hit jobs or grow out of personal animosity, the vast majority of recalls arise from hot button local issues — such as tax increases or zoning decisions. There are numerous examples of personal or partisan recalls, but for the most part, recalls have a solid basis in policy.
For those hoping that recall will clean out corruption, there's a mixed bag. There are few corruption-based recalls, but even this fact has to be hedged. Officials facing corruption allegations frequently resign in the face of the recall threats. So recall proponents have a point. At the very least, it can be used as an implicit threat to force out tainted officials.
If adopted, New Yorkers should expect the recalls to be used. Recalls appear to have increased in use in recent years. We could look to the states as a guide. Of the 36 state legislative recalls that have taken place since 1913, 29 of them occurred after 1981.
There are a number of reasons for the increase, most prominent among them technological innovations such as email and social media that allows angry voters to get the word out about a perceived misdeed and organize faster. But one fact highlights why they are used — they work.
In 2012, 108 of the 168 officials facing a recall were ousted or resigned. In 2011, 84 of the 151 officials who faced a recall lost their seats.
It is also clear that voters like the recall. Elected officials in other states regularly attempt to limit the recall, but they rarely succeed. Instead, voters in a number of local jurisdictions throughout the country have adopted recall laws.
In looking at a recall law, voters should be clear. The big impact is likely to hit local officials. Recalls may not be successful in attacking corruption or even getting better officials. But the recall is a potentially powerful tool. And voters will use this new weapon.