By Helen Brewer
When state legislators do something we don’t like, do we have to wait until the next general election to vote them out of office, or should we be able to get rid of them right away?
In some states, citizens can attempt to remove an elected official at any time by initiating a recall election. Nineteen states allow citizens to recall state officials, such as legislators or governors, and many more allow local officials to be recalled.
But a thorny debate lurks behind every recall election: Do recalls embody the spirit of democracy by fulfilling the promise of government “by the people, for the people,” or are they a political tool special interest groups use to circumvent the democratic process?
This debate came to a head recently in Colorado, where citizens initiated (and ultimately abandoned) a recall effort against Representative Tom Sullivan (D) after he supported policies some constituents (and a prominent statewide gun rights group) opposed, including gun control measures. (The recall effort was eventually pulled.)
Some states’ laws prevent this kind of political recall from occurring. Under these “judicial recall” laws, a legislator can only be recalled for committing crimes or failing to fulfill official duties. In states like Colorado that don’t require such grounds for recall, however, citizens can recall a legislator simply because they don’t like his or her policy positions.
The debate over whether the recall is a fundamental democratic exercise or an opportunity for well-funded special interests to undo popular elections whose results they disagree with is complicated by the fact that recall elections sometimes occur separately from general elections and at odd times of year.
To some, like special elections expert Joshua Spivak, the thinking has been that the results of these off-cycle, low-voter-turnout recall elections reflect the opinions of only a small, angry group of citizens, not the broader public.
However, Spivak recently wrote he was surprised to find recall elections are actually more successful at ousting elected officials when they occur during general elections than when they are stand-alone elections. This seems to suggest recall elections can be representative of general public opinion and are not necessarily unrepresentative snapshots of the opinions of a small group of disgruntled voters.
But the other side of the recall debate still asks whether the mechanism is an appropriate way to influence politics – shouldn’t we just wait for the next regularly scheduled election to send a message by voting a legislator out of office then? Why should we get to change our minds about our elected officials whenever we want, when primary and general elections already allow us to do just that?
Perhaps because, as Spivak tells us in a phone interview, “the people who created this law were the people.” In many cases, “The voters adopted it—the voters said (recalls) should be allowed.”
Details vary by state, but to launch a recall election, citizens typically must gather a specified number of signatures on a petition within a certain time frame. Learn more by visiting our recently updated webpages covering recall of state officials and recall of local officials.
Helen Brewer is an intern with NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.