After spate of recalls, Wisconsin Republicans hope to raise the bar

November 14, 2013

Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) knows how to survive a recall election. (Richard Shiro/AP)

In 2012, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt. Now, Republicans in the state legislature want to make it harder for future governors to be recalled in the first place.

State law allows voters to recall any elected official who has served at least one year in office if opponents collect enough signatures in a 60-day window. On Thursday, legislators will consider proposals to drastically change the standards under which an elected official could be recalled.

One new proposal would only allow a recall of a statewide elected official if the official had either been charged with a serious crime that would be punishable by at least a year in prison, or been accused of a serious ethics violation.

Another proposal would require a member of the legislature to be accused of malfeasance before a recall could proceed.

“We live in a system where elections have consequences. Wisconsin shouldn’t be any different,” state Rep. David Craig (R), a supporter of the bills, said in an interview. “Right now there is no standard whatsoever” for a recall. “There has to be some standard, where there has to at least be a firm accusation with some type of foundation of credibility.”

Craig said raising the bar for recalls also had a financial component. The recall election that Walker survived cost Wisconsin taxpayers $13.5 million, the state board of elections reported in September 2012.

The votes expected on the measures Thursday are just the first steps on the path to passage. Changing rules on statewide recalls will require a second vote, and then the matter will go before voters as a referendum on the 2014 ballot. Changing rules for legislative officials is simpler and doesn’t require a popular vote.

The proposed changes come after three years of extreme turbulence in Wisconsin politics. After Republicans swept to power in the 2010 elections, they advanced legislation that outraged Democrats and public employee unions. Democrats collected enough signatures to force several Republican state senators into recall elections in 2011 and 2012; they collected more than a million signatures to force Walker onto the ballot in 2012.

Twenty-nine states currently allow voters to recall at least some elected officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Wisconsin is one of fourteen states that allows recalls of state legislatures without requiring specific grounds — like malfeasance or conviction of a crime.

Walker, for his part, is making the most of his recall win. The Republican, elected in 2010 on a platform of job creation and bipartisanship, has embraced the mantle of Vanquisher of Big Labor in a memoir he wrote along with a former George W. Bush speechwriter. Walker is touting his book on a tour this month that many Republicans see as a possible prelude to a 2016 presidential bid.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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