Total Recall Shades of Gray Davis

Terrance Heath

Plenty of things have been bothering me in the wake of the Wisconsin recall election. But one that particularly “sticks in my craw” is what appears to be the developing conventional wisdom that recall elections should hardly ever happen, and are appropriate only in very narrow circumstances. If ever a developing consensus deserved to be snuffed out, this one belongs right up there with “60 is the new 51.”

After all, no one had a problem with recall elections in 2003.

That was the year that California governor Gray Davis was defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a recall election. (Here’s an interesting bit of trivia I didn’t know about the California’s 2003 recall of Gov. Davis. Apparently, Rep. Darrel Issa contributed $2 million of his own money to the recall effort, and was widely credited with making it possible for recall supporters to collected enough signatures to put the Davis recall on the ballot. Yes. That Darrell Issa. Issa wanted to run to replace Gray himself, until Schwarzenegger terminated that idea.)

Now, everyone seems to think it’s just a terrible idea to recall any sitting elected official for anything short of criminal acts. Barney Frank, never shy with his opinions, told The Hill that the Wisconsin recall was a “mistake.” “My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked,” Frank said. “The recall was upsetting to people…” Swampland’s Michael Grunwald, says “Recalling a politician who didn’t abuse his office is crazy.”

A lot of Wisconsin voters appear to agree. Exit polls showed that 60% of Wisconsin voters said recall elections are only appropriate for official misconduct.

Sixty percent of Wisconsin voters in today’s recall election say recall elections are only appropriate for official misconduct, according to early CBS News exit polls. Twenty-eight percent said they think they are suitable for any reason, while nine percent think they are never appropriate.

…The recall effort was brought about mainly in response to Walker’s plan that restricted collective bargaining rights for public union workers. Today, 52 percent of Wisconsin voters in the early exit polls said they have a favorable view of unions for government workers, while 43 percent have an unfavorable opinion of these unions. Among voters in unions households (public or not), 69 percent view these unions favorably.

So even in a state where a majority — albeit a slim one — look favorably on unions, the overwhelming majority believes there’s no call for a recall if no laws were broken, and just over 25% think that recalls are appropriate for any reason. Even though exits polls show Obama leading Romney in Wisconsin (on an election day that should have boosted Romney, as Michael Tomasky noted), 17% of Obama voters cast their ballots for Walker. Some people write them off as independents, but it’s just as likely that many of them were actually more opposed to the recall vote than to Scott Walker.

Given the above, I’ve been wondering for the last few days what Gray Davis — the last  governor to be successfully recalled, and the second to face a recall in U.S. history — might have to day about it. I no longer have to wonder. In his recent column for The Daily Beast, Gray Davis says Wisconsin’s recall election was totally appropriate.

Some have argued that the recall was not the appropriate remedy for Governor Walker’s proposals. According to exit polls, most of the people of Wisconsin agreed, believing that a recall should be for misconduct in office, not for policy disagreements. Wisconsin, however, does not have a referendum process, and thus had no other remedy available to it.

As someone who did not fare as well as Governor Walker, during my recall, I had no reservations about the recall process. I believe that voters should have the first and last word. In our state, initiative, referendum and recall provisions have been in our Constitution for the last 100 years. If public officials in California don’t like that, they should find another line of work.

My hope is that Governor Walker will view his victory on Tuesday as a second chance to bring the people of Wisconsin together behind more comprehensive and balanced reforms.

That’s impressive, coming from a guy hwo was recalled because people didn’t like how he managed the state budget, rather than because he committed a crime or abused the power of his office. California voters recalled Gray because they didn’t like the way he ran things.

I tend to agree with Davis on this. Near as I can tell, recall elections have been a political reality in the U.S. since 1903, starting at the municipal level. The National Council of State Legislatures says that 19 states currently permit the recall of state officials, and at least 29 states also permit the recall of local officials. Only seven states — Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington, require specific grounds for a recall, and demand petitioners identify “some form of malfeasance or misconduct,” according to Wikipedia.

So, regardless of what Barney Frank, or 60% of Wisconsin voters think, in most cases a recall election is entirely appropriate even without official or criminal misconduct. And I think that’s the way it should be.

Voters, as Davis said, should have the first and last say. Limiting the use of recall elections, even if only in our minds, ensures one more way that voters have even less say. If anything, recall elections may be even more necessary in the absence of official or criminal misconduct. If it an elected official turns out to be a criminal, or abuses his or her office, the political system will can them back to private life, and the justice system can send them prison.

But what about when elected officials abuse voters’ trust? By many accounts, Scott Walker ran as a relative moderate, only to reveal a radical right-wing stealth agenda once in office. Wisconsinites filled the streets in response, and voter’s responded by forcing Walker to face a recall in which he spent 88% of the money in the election to get just 53% of the vote.

If that isn’t grounds for recall, what’s the alternative. If an elected official turns out not to be what he or she led us to believe, and reveals another agenda once in office, are voters just stuck with him or her until the next election? According to David, in the absence of a referendum process, Wisconsin voters had no other remedy aside from waiting out Walker’s term of office. (Quietly, or not.)

Walker survived recall election by a much slimmer margin than he should have, especially given what he had to spend to win, but the voters still had the last word. Wisconsin voters recalled Walker because they didn’t like they way he governed Wisconsin. It was their right to do so, and they were right to do it.

A recall vote is another way voters can send a message to elected officials, in a way that protests and marches can’t accomplish: Abuse our trust, and there will be a price to pay. If we raise the bar, even psychologically, on when a recall vote is “appropriate” we end up having less say in our government, and governing ends not needing as much of the consent of the governed.

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