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Recall Efforts In Wisconsin Face Tough Odds

Labor and union supporters protest alongside supporters  of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker outside the State Capitol on Saturday  in Madison.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Labor and union supporters protest alongside supporters of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker outside the State Capitol on Saturday in Madison.

"Throw the bums out" is not an uncommon sentiment among voters disillusioned with elected officials.

But the urge to "throw 'em out" is now so great in Wisconsin, where a budget battle is raging, that many voters can't wait until the next election. Instead, partisans are trying to unseat 16 members of the state Senate through an election recall process, the scope of which has rarely — if ever — been seen.

It's "really unusual," says Thomas Cronin, a Colorado College political science professor who has written about the politics of initiative, referendum and recall.


The Wisconsin recall efforts have been launched in the wake of a partisan standoff over public employee pay, benefits and collective bargaining guarantees.

Cronin says history suggests that the attempts to dislodge eight Democratic and eight Republican lawmakers are unlikely to succeed. Even Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a lightning rod for Democratic anger, is likely to be safe from ouster because state-level recall efforts have a very high likelihood of fizzling out.

The state's 14 Democratic senators remain sequestered in Illinois, where they fled three weeks ago to avoid a showdown vote involving Walker's state budget. The governor wants to use budget-related legislation to significantly reduce collective bargaining for workers. The issue has deeply divided state residents.

"People may be confused and annoyed on both sides — with the governor for being ham-handed about cuts, and with Democrats for leaving the state to avoid a vote," Cronin says. "But recall efforts very rarely succeed at the state level."

Eighteen states allow the recall of state officials. Though eight states require specific grounds for recall — from incompetence in Alaska, to a felony conviction in Kansas — Wisconsin is among those with no such rules.


Local-Level Recalls More Common

Though many point to the dramatic recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2003 as a defining grass-roots success, it was actually an anomaly, researchers say.

The most recent prior recall of a governor? More than 80 years earlier, when North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier was ousted during his third term, a victim of anger over a downturn in the state's farming economy, worsened by a drought.

Frazier went on to serve the state in the U.S. Senate.

At the National Conference of State Legislatures, senior fellow Jennie Drage Bowser says statistics she has compiled illustrate the difficulties in mounting successful recalls of state officials. But they also suggest that local officials face more recall peril than state or federal officials.

"Historically, the recall is used a lot more at the local level — city council, school board, mayor," she says. "It's both attempted less frequently at the state level, and is much less frequently successful."

California voters mounted 32 unsuccessful gubernatorial recalls since 1911 before they ousted Gray — the first effort that even reached a ballot. Arizona voters in 1988 gathered enough legitimate signatures to force a recall election for Gov. Evan Mecham, a Republican, but his impeachment rendered the effort moot.

California was also the leader in efforts to recall state legislators — it tried 107 times between 1911 and 1994, according to NCSL research, resulting in only two senators recalled. In 1995, the state recalled two Assembly members.

Two Michigan state senators were recalled in 1983, and an Oregon state legislator was recalled in 1998.

Why So Difficult?

"Thresholds for recall are pretty high, so the mechanics are part of what makes it tough," Drage Bowser says. "But the recall is also a political tool — just because there's a small and vocal section of the population, doesn't necessarily translate into a mass uprising against that person.

"It's hard to assemble the political will or organization to achieve recall at a state level," she says.

In Wisconsin, to force a recall vote involving a state legislator, activists are required to collect signatures equal to 25 percent of total votes cast in the state for U.S. president in the last national election.

For a recall vote on a statewide officer, including governor, Wisconsin requires signatures equal to 25 percent of the votes cast for that position in the previous election.

Activists have 60 days to collect signatures from registered voters.

Organizing volunteers to collect the signatures is often the stumbling block for recall activists. But in Wisconsin, the union has a built-in, statewide network it can call on, and experts, including Joseph Zimmerman at the University at Albany-State University of New York, say their influence will be interesting to track.

"Unions would have membership more or less throughout the state — and if you get the big unions behind you, that helps getting signatures," says Zimmerman, author of the 1997 book The Recall: Tribunal of the People.

Birth Of Recall

The recall of elected officials was the product of the post-Civil War municipal reform movement, Zimmerman says.

"It was one of the many popular reform movements that came along then," he says, including the Grange and the populist movement.

"There was widespread citizen support for bringing about changes," he says. And it was particularly strong in the Midwest, Southwest and South.

Zimmerman is among those keeping an eye on how technology and social media may affect current recall efforts and other grass-roots initiatives.

"Look at how all the new technology is being used right now in the Arab world," he says.

Facebook pages touting recall efforts in Wisconsin have popped up, and organizers have been leaning on other social media sites to advance their causes.

Drage Bowser is watching the social media influence with interest, too, but says the bottom line still comes down to hard copy.

"No matter how much energy you get in the virtual community, it still takes actual signatures on a piece of paper to get the ball rolling," she says. "It will take people on the ground to make it happen."

Whether Wisconsin, in crisis and in the national spotlight, will make recall history will depend on equal parts organization and anger. But just the fact that efforts are under way to oust every state legislator eligible for recall (only those elected in 2008 can be recalled this year), guarantees that the Badger State will merit at least an asterisk in the annals of recalls.

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