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COMMENTARY: Ballotpedia puts recall in historical context

By   /   June 4, 2012  /   No Comments

By Wisconsin Reporter Staff

Political junkies from across the nation are closely watching the recall election of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who is targeted by labor unions and Democratic officials because of his largely successful efforts to reform the state’s pension and collective-bargaining system.
Walker holds a 3-percentage point to 10-point lead in the polls heading to Tuesday’s race, but the polls are far less clear regarding four state Senate recall races that will determine control of Wisconsin’s upper house. And that will have much impact on the ability of the governor to continue his agenda.
Many observers — mainly those outside the suddenly wild political world of Wisconsin — forget that union activists are targeting more than Walker, in what is proving to be one of the most wide-ranging recall elections in America’s history.
“The fate of three incumbent Republican state senators, along with the balance of power in the chamber, will be determined tomorrow as one fiercely partisan chapter in Wisconsin’s history winds to a close,” reported the website, Ballotpedia. “A fourth senator, Pam Galloway (R), was also recalled, but resigned, leaving her seat vacant.”
The Senate is tied with 16 Democrats and 16 Republicans, following Galloway’s resignation and the Democratic pick-up of two seats in a six-seat recall election in 2011. Again, this information comes from Ballotpedia, which offers a fascinating look at the arcane history of this Progressive-era reform.
Recall elections, along with the voter initiative and referendum process, were ushered in during the early 20th century by progressive politicians who were looking for ways to battle the power of vested corporate interests, such as the railroads and robber barons. Wisconsin approved the recall in 1926.
Here we see that 38 states allow the recall of public officials, although the specific reasons for recall vary. Most states allow recall at the whim of voters, but a dozen states require that the recall be for felony conviction or malfeasance or negligence of duty. Wisconsin places no such restrictions on recall efforts, which emboldened union activists angry at Walker for patently political reasons. This is just another shot at the governorship by activists sore that they lost the previous election. But that’s OK under recall law.
The most famous gubernatorial recall election took place in 2003, when California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Davis faced a huge budget deficit and a failed electricity re-regulation scheme that led to rolling blackouts. Unlike Wisconsin’s narrow field of three gubernatorial candidates, California had 135 people — including actors and a pornographer — vying for the state’s top job. Think of it as the Wisconsin recall with a wacky California spin.
“Between 1913 and 2008, there were 20 state legislative recall elections and all of them took place in just five states: California, Idaho, Michigan, Oregon and Wisconsin,” Ballotpedia reported. “13 of the recall elections were directed at state senators. 8 of the 13 were recalled. 7 of the recall elections were directed at state representatives. 5 of the 7 were recalled. Of the 20 state legislative recall elections, 13 out of 20 resulted in the state legislator being recalled.”
Local recalls are common, with a California recall election in the Orange County city of Fullerton taking place Tuesday as well. Activists are targeting three council members who are accused of improperly handling the brutal beating death of a homeless man at the hands of city police officers, two of whom now face charges by the district attorney. The three recalled city council members are moderate Republicans and the group seeking to oust them includes a political mix of conservatives and liberals.
The progressive designers of the recall election probably wouldn’t be surprised that the Wisconsin recall is being led by union activists, although they surely would be shocked to learn that public-sector union members earn far more generous compensation packages than the average Wisconsin citizen.
They wouldn’t be surprised, either, that in equally progressive California, the initiative, referendum and recall have largely become tools of frustrated citizens trying to circumvent the powerful special interest groups that control the Capitol — but they might be surprised that the new robber barons are public sector unions and that conservatives have come to rely on the processes they designed.
Whatever one’s views, Ballotpedia is an indispensable resource for those who want to put Tuesday’s election in historical context.