There was a time, not so long ago, when the phrase “permanent campaign” described a state of mind. Now, as the number of state legislators who find themselves facing recall efforts mounts, the permanent campaign is taking on a much more literal meaning.
The recall election, once reserved for forcing out elected officials accused of a crime, ethics violations or gross misconduct, has become an overtly political tool. Since 2011, voters in four states have successfully mounted petition drives to recall state legislators over new laws curbing the influence of public unions, or expanding the reach of background checks on gun purchasers.
The number of recalls has spiked dramatically in recent years. Of the 32 successful recalls in the United States since 1911, one third — 11 — have taken place since 2011. Of the 21 recall efforts that succeeded in forcing a sitting elected official back onto the ballot, but failed at the polls, 13 have taken place in just the last two years.
Two factors are driving the new splurge of recall signature gathering: First, previously parochial politics are taking on a national flavor. Second, new technology available to political activists is lowering the once-high barrier to entry.
Early recall elections were overwhelmingly about local factors. When voters ousted Hiram Gill (R), the mayor of Seattle, in 1911, they rendered a quick verdict on his legalization of gambling and prostitution in the city. Anti-tax activists succeeded in recalling California Gov. Gray Davis (D), back in 2003, after Davis advocated a $4 billion vehicle tax that pushed his approval ratings to record lows. In most cases, previous recall elections didn’t attract outside spending.
Now, outside groups are playing an increasing role. Public employee unions spent millions on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2012, and millions more to oust several Wisconsin state senators the following year, while conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce spent millions more defending Walker. Data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity showed more than half of the $63.5 million the two sides spent in the gubernatorial recall came from outside the state.
Unions and immigration advocates spent more than $200,000 in a successful bid to recall Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce in 2011, while local home builders and law enforcement groups combined to spend almost as much to defend the immigration hard-liner.
This year, gun control advocates have spent more than $1 million, and public employee unions have spent hundreds of thousands more, defending two Democratic state senators in Colorado who backed strict new background check laws. Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association, which drove the recall efforts in the first place, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own, mostly through opaque groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Technology, too, is aiding those who are unhappy with their local legislators. In 2011, better voter lists and paid signature gatherers helped unions and Wisconsin Democrats gather more than 931,000 signatures — far in excess of the 540,000 they needed to recall Walker.
In one Colorado district, conservative groups used an iPhone app to directly interface with the Secretary of State’s voter database, which meant they could immediately check whether a voter was eligible to sign the petition, and how they should sign it (That is, the voter would be asked to sign the petition as “Robert” instead of “Bob” if their registration records reflected that name). The result: Of the 13,466 signatures turned in to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, almost 94 percent were deemed valid, a stunningly high number.
Yes, if you want to recall your local elected official, there’s an app for that.
While recall supporters once needed to gather many more signatures than required by law, to ensure they had enough valid entries, the new technology makes it much easier to do the work, said Laura Carno, the conservative activist behind one of the Colorado recalls. “That group in Pueblo didn’t have any paid signature gatherers. They did it 100 percent with volunteers,” she said of the recall backers who used the app.
The dual factors of nationalized politics and new technology, say some political observers, mean an era of recalls may be at hand. If liberal and conservative activists are both taking advantage of recall laws to register their displeasure with elected officials’ legislative actions, few legislators are safe, and more controversial legislation will generate recall efforts.
Once a recall makes the ballot, political reality means the onus lies with the incumbent to make the case against it, rather than with the recall organizers. Polls show voters don’t necessarily like the over-use of the recall, but it can be difficult to convince a voter who opposes a given effort to turn out on an irregularly-scheduled election day. Those who back recalls, and therefore ousting a given legislator from office, are by definition more motivated to turn out to vote. Those who oppose a recall and support the incumbent, however, aren’t always as interested.
“If anybody can get 12,000 signatures, or whatever’s needed to recall somebody on a singular vote that somebody’s upset about, you’re going to see both parties using the recall process in a very aggressive fashion,” said Rick Ridder, a Colorado Democratic strategist who has watched the recalls from afar. “We’ll now have legislative races in even-numbered years and odd-numbered years. That’s going to change the dynamic of politics in this state.”
And other states, as well. At least 17 states allow state legislators to be recalled from office. And as increasingly partisan state legislatures take on a growing number of controversial issues, from abortion and gay marriage to taxes and gun control, the number of activists angry enough to mount recalls is likely to increase too.
“The next Republican that acts stupid, why don’t I use this?” mused Ridder.