Recall elections surge in local and state governments

The new president of Arizona’s state Senate, Russell Pearce, had only 21 days to enjoy that position before opponents began circulating petitions in January to recall the freshly reelected conservative.

That’s more time than Jim Suttle had. The night the Democrat was elected mayor of Omaha in 2009, backers of his rivals began to talk online about trying to remove him from office. Suttle barely survived a recall election in January.

Once a political rarity, recall elections are surging in local and state governments.

The number of mayors who faced recalls doubled in 2010 from the previous year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said. Anti-tax activists even tried to recall two Democratic U.S. senators last year, only to be shot down by courts, which noted that there are no provisions for recalls in federal law.

Joshua Spivak, who studies recalls and blogs about them at, said there had been only 20 attempted recalls of state legislators in U.S. history. This year, 10 are already on the ballot. Much of that is because of an unprecedented outbreak of recalls in Wisconsin, where the newly elected Republican governor’s proposal to limit the power of unions led to recalls against six Republican state senators who voted for the bill, and three Democrats who left the state to try to stop its passage.


Spivak said he thought recall attempts could increase along the lines of their electoral sibling, ballot initiatives, which once were rare but since the 1970s have been a fixture on election day. Recalls may end up the same way, he said.

“It is growing and it is something that people are seeing as a valuable tool against elected officials,” he said, noting that more states are permitting recalls and that even Australia and England might follow suit. “People want more checks on their elected officials.”

That worries some who contend that the constant threat of recalls makes it impossible to govern.

“It’s just not good government to have an election every month,” said Tom Cochran, executive director of the mayors conference.

Voter disgust with politics, which often peaks during times of economic turmoil, is fueling some of the increase, analysts say.

Most recalls are triggered if proponents collect signatures equivalent to a percentage of total votes in the prior election. With election turnout shrinking in many places, it is easier than ever to place a recall on the ballot. In Akron, Ohio, only 3,200 signatures were needed to trigger an attempt to recall the mayor in 2009. It failed by a 3-1 margin.

Technological innovations — and the polarizing nature of the Web and social media — also are factors, said Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

“Back in 1903, you only found out there was a recall because your neighbor told you about it,” Schneider said. “Now, with Facebook and Twitter, it’s all at the click of a button.

“For anybody who thought that politicians are in thrall to special interests now, just wait until they can get yanked out of office anytime they cross the big boys.”

The best-known recall in recent years was of California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, which led to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor. But most recalls happen on the municipal level, where it’s easier to gather the required signatures.

Despite the Wisconsin free-for-all, where Republicans are on the defensive, many recent recalls have been sparked by a “tea party"-esque backlash against taxes and government unions. The most significant one occurred in March, when 86% of Miami-Dade County voters agreed to boot Mayor Carlos Alvarez because of tax increases.

Norman Braman, the billionaire former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles who spent $1 million on the campaign, said he was spurred by property tax hikes that paid for raises for public workers. “People are fighting to save their homes. How the hell do you increase their taxes?” he said.

“They should make it easier for the average citizen” to pursue recalls, said Braman, who, like Alvarez, is a Republican. “Why should someone who has my net worth be the only one who can afford this?”

In Omaha, some conservatives had proposed a recall immediately after Suttle won the election in May 2009, but a full-fledged effort did not start until last year. By then, Suttle had angered restaurant owners and landlords with new fees and regulations to help close the city’s budget deficit.

Suttle, who spent the last two months of last year frantically raising money for the campaign, contended that he wasn’t targeted for corruption, but because of simple politics. “There were seven wealthy white men who decided to put a fifth quarter to a football game I won fair and square on May 9, 2009,” he said.

David Nabity, a business consultant and recall leader in Omaha, said there was nothing wrong with that.

“A person should be evaluated on their public policy decisions and their ability to manage,” Nabity said. “If people lose faith in that person’s ability to manage the community, people should be given the option to recall him.”

In Arizona, Pearce has long stirred strong reactions for his tough stance on illegal immigration. Admirers call him a principled patriot for sponsoring popular laws like SB 1070, which pushes police to do more to stem illegal immigration and is being challenged in court by the Obama administration. Critics contend Pearce appeals to racism.

Pearce was reelected in November with 57% of the vote and became president of the state Senate. Three weeks after the legislative session started, activists began circulating recall petitions.

They turned in 18,000 signatures last month — more than the 17,552 votes Pearce received in November. The Arizona secretary of state is reviewing the petitions and is expected to set an election for November or March.

“It’s an effort to use the recall system to silence individuals who are trying to protect the United States,” said Matt Tolman, who heads the committee backing Pearce. “Anytime they disagree with you, boom! They run a recall on you.”

Randy Parraz, a veteran activist who helped lead the recall effort, said the campaign used some paid signature gatherers but consisted largely of grass-roots volunteers.

“They look at the damage that he has done to our image, our brand, job creation,” Parraz said. “The recall is there for a reason.”