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Recall of State Officials

Recall of State Officials

9/11/2013

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NOTE:  The following is presented for informational purposes only. NCSL does not provide advice on how to conduct a recall campaign in any state. For the specific procedures to be followed in any state, please contact state election officials.

Overview

Recall is a procedure that allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term of office. Historically, recall has been used most frequently at the local level. By some estimates, three-fourths of recall elections are at the city council or school board level. This brief, however, focuses on the recall only as it applies to state officials.

Recall differs from another method for removing officials from office--impeachment--in that it is a political device while impeachment is a legal process. Impeachment requires the House to bring specific charges, and the Senate to act as a jury. In most of the 19 recall states, specific grounds are not required, and the recall of a state official is held by an election.

Nineteen states permit the recall of state officials:

Recall of State Officials

Alaska

Kansas

New Jersey

Arizona

Louisiana

North Dakota

California

Michigan

Oregon

Colorado

Minnesota

Rhode Island

Georgia

Montana

Washington

Idaho

Nevada

Wisconsin

Illinois

 

 

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, July 2011

The District of Columbia also allows recalls. Virginia has a process similar to a recall, but it is not listed here as a recall state because its process, while requiring citizen petitions, calls for a recall trial rather than an election. After sufficient petition signatures are gathered and verified, a circuit court decides whether a Virginia official will be removed from office. In all other recall states, the voters decide through an election.


Recall of Local Officials

In at least 29 states (some sources place this number at 36), recall elections may be held in local jurisdictions.


History and Use of the Recall in the U.S.

The recall device began in the United States in a municipality--Los Angeles--in 1903. Michigan and Oregon, in 1908, were the first states to adopt recall procedures for state officials; Minnesota (1996) and New Jersey (1993) were the most recent.

Historically, recall attempts at the state level have been unsuccessful. The recall is used much more often, and with more success, at the local level.

There have been three gubernatorial recall elections held in U.S. history. In 2012, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived a recall attempt. In 2003, California voters successfully recalled Governor Gray Davis, and in North Dakota in 1921, voters removed from office not only Governor Lynn J. Frazier, but also the attorney general and the commissioner of agriculture. California voters have initiated 32 gubernatorial recall attempts since 1911, but the 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 was the first to ever reach the ballot. In 1988, Arizona voters filed enough signatures to trigger a recall election for Governor Evan Mecham, but he was impeached by the state's House of Representatives before the date of the scheduled recall election.

Recall efforts against state legislators are more common, but still unusual. Recall attempts against legislators have gathered sufficient signatures to trigger an election just 38 times, and eleven of those occurred in a single year, 2011. Fifty-five percent of all legislative recall elections have succeeded in unseating a legislator, and additionally two legislators resigned after petitions with sufficient signatures were submitted. Seventeen recall attempts have failed, and the legislators subject to the recall remained in office. While there have been more legislative recall elections in recent years (45 percent have taken place in the years 2011-2013), they have been less successful than in the past:  just eight of the 17 recalls attempted between 2011-2013 succeeded in unseating a legislator, a 47 percent success rate.

The list below represents all of the recall efforts against state legislators that led to elections between 1908 (when the first state to implement the recall, Oregon, did so) and the present.

Many more petitions are started and never make it to the election stage; either they are abandoned by their sponsors, or they fail to gather sufficient valid signatures to trigger an election. A recent example was in Colorado, in fall, 2013. Senator Evie Hudak faced a recall challenge; before the signatures were turned in, she resigned.  By doing so, a recall election was not held, and her party was able to name her successor.

All Recall Elections Held in the U.S. for State Legislators

  • 1913: California state senator Marshall Black was recalled.
  • 1914: California state senator Edwin Grant was recalled.
  • 1914: California state senator James Owens survived a recall election.
  • 1932: Wisconsin state senator Otto Mueller survived a recall election.
  • 1935: Oregon state representative Harry Merriam was recalled.
  • 1971: Idaho state senator Fisher Ellsworth was recalled.
  • 1971: Idaho state representative Aden Hyde was recalled.
  • 1981: Washington state senator Peter von Reichbauer survived a recall election.
  • 1983: Michigan state senator Phil Mastin was recalled.
  • 1983: Michigan state senator David Serotkin was recalled. (Technically he resigned from office before the results of the recall election were certified, but the results were sufficient to recall him.)
  • 1985: Oregon state representative Pat Gillis was recalled.
  • 1988: Oregon state senator Bill Olson was recalled.
  • 1990: Wisconsin state assembly member Jim Holperin survived a recall election.
  • 1994: California state senator David Roberti survived a recall election.
  • 1995: California assembly member Paul Horcher was recalled.
  • 1995: California assembly member Michael Machado survived a recall election.
  • 1995: California assembly member Doris Allen was recalled.
  • 1996: Wisconsin state senator George Petak was recalled.
  • 2003: Wisconsin state senator Gary George was recalled.
  • 2008: California state senator Jeff Denham survived a recall election.
  • 2008: Michigan house speaker Andy Dillon survived a recall election.
  • 2011: Wisconsin state senators Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Dave Hansen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jim Holperin, Luther Olsen and Robert Wirch survived attempted recalls, while Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke were recalled.
  • 2011: Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce was recalled on November 8.
  • 2011: Michigan state representative Paul Scott was recalled on November 8.
  • 2012: Wisconsin state senator Van Wanggaard was recalled. Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald and senator Terry Moulton survived recall elections. Senator Pam Galloway resigned earlier in the year when sufficient signatures were gathered to trigger a recall election. Even though her name wasn't on the ballot, a recall election was still held for her seat. All four senate seats in the recall election were held by Republicans; after the recall, three remain in Republican hands and one switched to the Democrats, giving control of the Senate to the Democratic party.
  • 2013: Colorado Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron were recalled on September 10.

Pros and Cons of the Recall

Supporters of the recall maintain that it provides a way for citizens to retain control over elected officials who are not representing the best interests of their constituents, or who are unresponsive or incompetent. This view holds that an elected representative is an agent or a servant and not a master.

Opponents argue that it can lead to an excess of democracy, that the threat of a recall election lessens the independence of elected officials, that it undermines the principle of electing good officials and giving them a chance to govern until the next election, and that it can lead to abuses by well-financed special interest groups.


How the Recall Process Works

The recall process varies in its details from one state to another, but in general, it follows these steps:

1.  File an application to circulate a recall petition (some states allow petitions only if they meet certain grounds for recall).

2.  Circulate a recall petition, gathering a specified number of signatures in a limited period of time (view the detailed petitioning requirements).

3.  Submit petitions to election officials for verification of signatures.

4.  If sufficient valid signatures are presented, a recall election is held.

Grounds for Recall

In most states, any registered voter can begin a recall campaign for any reason. Often, the reasons are political. The 2011 recall efforts provide a good example for politically-motivated recalls. In Wisconsin, Republican senators faced recalls for their support of the governor's effort to reduce the influence of public employee unions, while Democratic senators faced recall because voters disapproved when they left the state to delay a vote on the union issue. In Arizona, a senator faced recall for his sponsorship of a controversial immigration bill.

The language in Michigan's constitution is typical of most states: "The sufficiency of any statement of reasons or grounds ... shall be a political rather than a judicial question." (Const. Art. II §8)

In 2012, Michigan passed a new requirement that a recall petition must state clearly and factually the reason(s) for the recall, which must be based on the the elected official's conduct during his or her term of office (M.C.L. §168.951A). This doesn't really compare to the types of grounds required in other states. Even with this new law in Michigan, politically-motivated recalls can continue. For instance, a voter could initiate a recall against a legislator on the grounds that he voted against an issue the voter supports. As long as that is stated clearly and factually, it would presumably meet this new criteria.

Specific grounds for recall are required in only eight states:

 

Grounds for Recall

 

Alaska:  Lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties or corruption (AS §15.45.510)

Georgia:  Act of malfeasance or misconduct while in office; violation of oath of office; failure to perform duties prescribed by law; willfully misused, converted, or misappropriated, without authority, public property or public funds entrusted to or associated with the elective office to which the official has been elected or appointed. Discretionary performance of a lawful act or a prescribed duty shall not constitute a ground for recall of an elected public official. (Ga. Code §21-4-3(7) and 21-4-4(c))

Kansas: Conviction for a felony, misconduct in office, incompetence, or failure to perform duties prescribed by law. No recall submitted to the voters shall be held void because of the insufficiency of the grounds, application, or petition by which the submission was procured. (KS Stat. §25-4301)

Minnesota:  Serious malfeasance or nonfeasance during the term of office in the performance of the duties of the office or conviction during the term of office of a serious crime (Const. Art. VIII §6)

Montana:  Physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of oath of office, official misconduct, conviction of certain felony offenses (enumerated in Title 45). No person may be recalled for performing a mandatory duty of the office he holds or for not performing any act that, if performed, would subject him to prosecution for official misconduct. (Mont. Code §2-16-603)

Rhode Island:  Authorized in the case of a general officer who has been indicted or informed against for a felony, convicted of a misdemeanor, or against whom a finding of probable cause of violation of the code of ethics has been made by the ethics commission (Const. Art. IV §1)

Virginia:  Neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office, or upon conviction of a drug-related misdemeanor or a misdemeanor involving a "hate crime" (§24.2-233)

Washington:  Commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violation of oath of office (Const. Art. I §33)

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, July 2011

Circulating a Recall Petition

The recall process is similar to the initiative process in that citizen petitions are required. The number of signatures necessary to qualify a recall petition, however, is often significantly higher than for initiatives. Signature requirements are based on a formula, generally a percentage of the vote in the last election for the office in question, although some states base the formula on the number of eligible voters or other variants. Whatever the formula, the signature requirements are high: 25 percent in nine states; 25 percent for statewide offices and 35 percent for legislators in Washington; one-third in Louisiana; and 40 percent in Kansas. California's requirements are 12 percent for statewide offices; 20 percent for legislators and appellate judges. Georgia requires 15 percent for statewide offices and 30 percent for all others. Idaho requires 20 percent for all offices. Montana has the lowest number of required signatures: 10 percent for statewide officials and 15 percent for state district offices such as legislative districts.

 

 

Who Can Be Recalled

Signature Requirement

Circulation Time

Alaska

All elected public officers of the state except judicial officers

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

Not specified

Arizona

Every public officer in the state holding an elective office

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

120 days

California

State officers, members of the legislature, judges of courts of appeal

For statewide officers:

12% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled, 1% from each of 5 counties 

State Senators, members of the Assembly, members of the Board of Equalization, judges of courts of appeal:

20% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

160 days

Colorado

Every elective officer of the state

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

60 days

Georgia

Public officials who hold elective office

For statewide officers:

15% of eligible voters for office at time of last election, 1/5 from each congressional district

Others:

30% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

90 days

Idaho

Every public officer in the state except judicial officers

20% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

60 days

Illinois

Governor

15% of the votes cast for governor in the preceding general election from each of at least 25 counties

Also required are the signatures from at least 20 members of the House of Representatives and 10 members of the Senate, with no more than half the signatures of members of each chamber from the same political party.

150 days

Kansas

All elected public officers in the state except judicial officers

40% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

90 days

Louisiana

Any state official except judges of the courts of record

If over 1,000 eligible voters:

33.3% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

If fewer than 1,000 eligible voters:

40% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

180 days

Michigan

All elective officers except judges of the courts of record

25% of total votes cast for position at last election

60 days

Minnesota

State executive officers, legislators, and judges of the supreme court, court of appeals or a district court

25% of total votes cast for position at last election

90 days

Montana

Any person holding a public office of the state

For statewide officers:

10% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

For district officers:

15% of eligible voters for office at time of last election

3 months

Nevada

Every public officer in the state

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

60 days

New Jersey

Any elected official in the state or representing the state in the U.S. Congress

25% of the registered voters in the electoral district of the official sought to be recalled

Governor or U.S. Senator:  320 days

All others:  160 days

North Dakota

Any elected official of the state or legislative district

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

Not specified

Oregon

Every public officer in the state

15% of total votes cast in officer's district for all candidates for governor in the last election

90 days

Rhode Island

Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General

15% of total votes cast for said office in last general election

90 days

Washington

Every elective public officer of the state except judges of courts of record

For statewide officers:

25% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

Others:

35% of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled

Statewide officers:  270 days

Others:  180 days

 

 

 

Wisconsin

Any state, judicial, congressional or legislative official

25% of total votes cast for the office of governor at the last election within the same district or territory of that officer being recalled

60 days

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, July 2011

The Recall Election

In six states,the election for a successor is held simultaneously with the recall election. In California and Colorado, the first question on the ballot is whether the official should be recalled. Voters are then asked to vote for a candidate for the office; the official who is the subject of the recall may not be listed among these candidates. If a majority of voters votes "yes" on the recall question, then the incumbent is recalled and the successor is elected via the second part of the ballot. If a majority of voters votes "no" on the recall question, then the incumbent remains in office and the second portion of the ballot is moot.

In the other states using the simultaneous model, the submission and certification of the recall petition essentially triggers a special election for the office, and the recall ballot consists of a list of candidates for the office. The name of the official who is the subject of the recall may appear on the ballot along with other nominees. In fact, in Arizona and Wisconsin, the name of the official being recalled is automatically placed on the recall ballot for reelection unless the official resigns from office.

In the remaining 13 states, the recall ballot contains only the question of whether or not the official should be recalled. If the majority vote is "yes" for recall, the office is declared vacant and is filled at a special election or as otherwise provided by law, which in some states is by appointment for the remainder of the term. The chart below details how the recall election is conducted in each state.

 

Recall Election Held Simultaneously With Election for Successor

Recall Election Followed by Separate Special Election for Successor

Recall Election;
Successor is Appointed

Arizona1

Georgia

Alaska

California2

Louisiana

Idaho3

Colorado2

Michigan

Kansas3

Nevada1

Minnesota

Oregon

North Dakota1

Montana4

Washington5

Wisconsin1

New Jersey

 

 

Rhode Island

 

 

Illinois

 

1) In these states, the recall ballot consists of a list of candidates for the office held by the person against whom the recall petition was filed. The name of the officer against whom the recall was filed may appear on the ballot for reelection.

2) In these states, the recall ballot consists of two parts. The first asks whether the officer against whom the recall petition was filed should be recalled. The second part consists of a list of candidates who have qualified for the election. Note that courts in both states have ruled that a voter's choice of candidate on the second part of the ballot must be counted regardless of whether or not the person cast a vote on the yes/no recall question first.

3) The governor appoints a successor who must be a member of the same political party as the officeholder recalled, and must be selected from a list submitted by a committee of the political party of the person recalled.

4) If vacancy occurs within 85 days of the general election in the second year of the term (terms are for four years), the county board of commissioners appoints a successor to serve until the election.

5) County board of commissioners appoints a person from a list submitted by a committee of the political party of the person recalled.
 


Recall Provisions in State Constitutions and Statutes

Alaska – Const. Art. 11, §8; AS §15.45.510-710, 15.60.010, 29.26.250-350

Arizona - Const. Art. 8, §1-6; Ariz. Rev. Stat. §19-201 – 19-234

California – Const. Art. 2, §13-19; CA Election Code §11000-11386

Colorado – Const. Art. 21; Colo. Rev. Stat. §1-12-101 – 1-12-122, 23-17-120.5, 31-4-501 – 31-4-505

Georgia – Const. Art. 2, §2.4; Ga. Code §21-4-1 et seq.

Idaho – Const. Art. 6, §6; Idaho Code §34-1701 – 34-1715

Illinois - Const. Art. 3. §7

Kansas – Const. Art. 4, §3; KSA §25-4301 – 25-4331

Louisiana – Const. Art. 10, §26; La. Stats. Ann. §18:1300.1 – 18:1300.17

Michigan – Const. Art. 2, §8; Mich. Election Law §168.951 – 168.975

Minnesota – Const. Art. 8, §6; Minn. Stat. Ann. §211C.01 et seq.

Montana – Mont. Code § 2-16-601 – 2-16-635

Nevada – Const. Art. 2, §9; Nev. Rev. Stat. §294A.006, Ch. 306, 539.163 – 539.183

New Jersey – Const. Art. 1, §2(b); NJ Rev. Stat. Ann. § 19:27A-1 – 19:27A-18

North Dakota – Const. Art. 3, §1 and 10; ND Century Code Ann. §16.1-01-09.1, 44-08-21

Oregon – Const. Art. 2, §18; Or. Rev. Stat. §249.865 – 249.880

Rhode Island – Const. Art. 4, §1

Virginia - Va. Code §24.2-233

Washington – Const. Art. 1, Sec. 33-34; Wash. Rev. Code §29A.56-110 et seq.

Wisconsin – Const. Art. 13, §12; Wis. Stat. Ann. §9.10

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