badger state recalls

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Since the upheaval in the Badger state over the public employee union battle, there have been a number of recall campaigns underway, against both the legislators responsible for passing the law and against some of the members of the “Wisconsin 14”, the state senators that left the state to prevent a vote on the law (which worked until Republicans stopped insisting it was a budget issue that would require a 20 senators quorum). In March, before before Walker had even signed the collective bargaining bill, recall campaigns were launched against all 16 state senators eligible to be recalled.

Wisconsin recall law prohibits recalls within the first year of a legislator’s term, and requires those seeking to force a recall to gather signatures amounting to 25% of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election won by in the district of the legislator being recalled. Anyone seeking to recall a legislator must register with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, and must gather the required signatures within 60 days of registration.

The 25% requirement means that recall seekers must collect between 13,622 signatures (for State Senator Luther Olsen from District 14) and 24,382 signatures (for State Senator Alberta Darling from District 8) 11,817 signatures (for State Senator Spencer Coggs) and 20,973 signatures (for State Senator Mary Lazich). With the 60 day timeline, that means between 227 197 and 406 350 new signatures per day from people who want their state senator to face another election.

Recalls are not supposed to be easy, and in my view the Wisconsin law was designed with this in mind. The prohibition of recalls within the first year means that the possibility of being recalled based on a single vote is less likely; unless the state senate has been particularly dormant for a year, a senator will be able to build up a body of work during that time. While a single vote may trigger the recall effort, they will not win or lose their recall election based on their vote on that single issue.

Despite this, State Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) is talking about changing the recall laws. He wants recalls to be available only in the cases of unethical or criminal behavior.

While I might debate the ethics of the actions taken by Wisconsin Republicans in getting the anti-union bill passed in March, I think Fitzgerald is way of the mark in claiming that recalls are only appropriate if a legislator has done something unethical or criminal. Legislators are meant to be the voice of their constituents. If those constituents decide that the legislator is no longer representing them properly, for whatever reason, I believe that they should have the right to reconsider their choice. Should it be easy? Absolutely not. But I don’t think the 25% requirement would be considered easy. Presumably, if you get that many signatures, you have half of the number needed to overturn a legislator’s election who have decided “I’d rather have another election now than wait this legislator out for another few years” (in this case, the senators being recalled would face re-election in November 2012 regardless).

I think that there are possibly valid cost concerns with recall elections. If I believed Wisconsin Republicans to be ideologically consistent rather than just trying to cling to power, I would expect them to turn this into a fight over wasteful government spending on spurious recall elections. But we don’t see Fitzgerald (or any other Wisconsin Republican that I’m aware of) making that argument. Instead, we see them making the argument that their constituents shouldn’t be able to change their minds about their representation unless a crime or unethical act has been committed.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) (a nonpartisan board established four years ago with the votes of “every GOP lawmaker in the state Legislature” in order to “put a nonpartisan agency in charge of elections”) has authorized the recall of nine legislators, six Republicans and three Democrats, which will take place on July 12th or 19th. If more than one challenger for the opposing party runs, these July elections will be primaries and the general recall election will come four weeks later on August 9th or 16th. Why two different days? Because recall elections are so rare that the GAB did not have sufficient staff to process all of the recall petitions on a single timeline.

Given that this current set of recalls is the second time fifth time (see below) in Wisconsin history that recalls have reached the election stage . . . do recall laws really need to be changed? Or is the partisanship exhibited by the current legislators just that much worse than in years past?


Updated to reflect my error in confusing 25% in the last gubernatorial election for 25% in the election won by the legislator, as pointed out by a commenter at dailykos.

Update II: As another commenter points out, I was incorrect on the number of state lawmakers recalled. One has been recalled in a situation where the majority switched (State Senator George Petak [R] in 1996, for his vote on taxing to build Miller Park), which was the number I had read and remembered. One (State Senator Gary George [D] in 2003) was recalled for corruption. State Senator Otto Mueller (in 1932) and then-State Representative James Holperin (in 1990) faced recalls but won. Holperin is one of the Democratic Senators facing recall this summer on July 19, 2011.

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