Wisconsin Needs to Take Another Look at Recall Process

When the current political "food fight" is over, perhaps the state can calmly re-examine if, when, and how to recall public officials.

A prominent political scientist recently observed that "Wisconsin is a state in turmoil."

Sadly, many objective observers of state politics from around the nation concur with University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.

It’s easy to see why.

By summer, Wisconsin will have attempted to recall 15 state officials in a year. The number and frequency of these elections, the money spent, and the toxic rhetoric are all unprecedented in state and American history.

In this polarized environment, Wisconsin cannot have a civil discussion about how to restore stability to state government. But, eventually, we will have to consider how to end the destructive cycle of recall elections.

When that day comes, it will be helpful to know how Wisconsin compares to other states.

Recall first emerged during the Progressive era of the early 1900s. Along with referendum and initiative, it was part of a trio of tools promoting direct democracy and was partly a response to corruption.

Wisconsin narrowly authorized (50.6%) recall elections by constitutional amendment in 1926. Currently, 19 states permit recalling at least some state officials.

But actual state recall elections are even more rare. Only North Dakota (1921) and California (2003) have recalled a governor. Just six states have recalled a state lawmaker.

During the first 98 years of legislative recalls (1913 to 2010), 21 elections were held in six states. Fifteen were successful, including two in Wisconsin: state Sen. George Petak (R-Racine) in 1996 and state Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee) in 2003.

But in the past two years, 15 state lawmakers have faced recall with 13 in Wisconsin. That’s 36 legislative recalls in 100 years, with 17 in the Badger State alone.

The most important difference among states is the grounds for recall. There is no restriction in 11 states, including Wisconsin. Five require a statement of reasons.

The remaining eight states limit recall to some form of wrongdoing, typically serious malfeasance or conviction of a serious crime. Some states also include corruption, unethical behavior, incompetence, or misdemeanor conviction.

In addition, Minnesota and Georgia require judicial review to verify the reasons for recall.

Recall procedures also vary. The time for circulating petitions generally falls in the 60- (Wisconsin) to 180-day range. Needed signatures range from 12 percent of votes cast to 40 percent of eligible voters in the last election the official faced.

In addition, states differ in when they allow recalls, with some prohibiting them early or late in an incumbent’s term. Wisconsin does both, although our window is wider. How often incumbents may be recalled also varies — from no limit, to once per term, to only once if the recall fails (unless election expenses are paid).

Clearly, there are many ways to reform or conduct recalls. When the current political "food fight" is over, perhaps Wisconsin can calmly re-examine if, when, and how to recall public officials.

We need that discussion if Wisconsin is to move beyond partisan gridlock and once again be viewed as a state to emulate.

Todd Berry is president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, an 80-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to government research and citizen education. It is not connected to any state or national groups and takes no government money. It does not lobby or advocate and does not participate in electoral politics.

Bob McBride June 04, 2012 at 07:37 PM
Correct, Greg. It was Rodney Dangerfield's mom who tied a pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him. It is important to get the facts straight.
Greg June 04, 2012 at 07:43 PM
"I was an ugly kid. When I was born, after the doctor cut the cord, he hung himself." Now that was all Rodney.
James R Hoffa June 04, 2012 at 08:40 PM
Gotta love the Borscht Belt humor :-) "I was over at Grossinger's. I was in the lobby there. That's where I'm staying, in the lobby of Grossinger's. They gave me a room, I walked in - there was no ceiling on the room. I called down to the clerk I said 'there's no ceiling on my room.' He said 'don't worry, the fellow upstairs don't walk around much!'"
Dave Koven June 04, 2012 at 10:20 PM
To Greg, McBride, and Alfred...Thank you for your well thought out replies. I am a changed man. I no longer believe in education or that teachers should be paid anything. Maybe it was Greg's complaining about having his leg peed on. My guess that was from one of the dogs he has in the fight. Alfred swayed me when he said I was just plain stupid...a winning argument every time. As for our Borscht Belt comedians, Greg, McBride, and Hoffa, I'd ask: "Is that your nose or are you eating a banana?" LOL
James R Hoffa June 04, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Gotta respect the Borscht Belt! I really miss those old resorts - a uniquely American experience in every regard. Grossinger's was king, followed by The Concord. Ah, the good old days!


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