The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s law for recalling elected officials needs reform

Beth Barts resigned from the Loudoun County School Board last year after a conservative parent group tried to recall her and several other members. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The philosophy behind the recall of elected officials is that there is a need for a final check on those who have proved so unfit or neglectful of the interests of their constituents that they should be ejected from office before the expiration of their terms. Recalls are rarely successful, but the process is increasingly being used by partisan and special interests as a way to bully or intimidate officials. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Virginia, where recent abuses have underscored the need for lawmakers to reform a law that has allowed — even encouraged — frivolous and harmful attacks on public officials.

In Virginia, an officeholder can be subjected to recall with a number of signatures totaling just 10 percent of the votes cast in that official’s last election. Unlike in other states that hold recall elections when voters petition for a recall, the matter is sent to a circuit court judge to determine if the complaints should go to trial. Under current law, judges may also order a recall election but are not required to. Recall can be sought from the moment the target of one takes office.

There has been an increase in recent years of local officials in Virginia being singled out for removal through recall petitions, often by political and ideological entities. School board members are increasingly in the crosshairs. Fairfax County last year saw the start of an effort to recall three of the 12 members of the school board, and in Loudoun County, six of the nine school board members elected in 2019 have been targeted for removal by a nonpartisan political action committee.

School board elections are generally low-turnout contests, thus making it fairly easy to obtain the signatures necessary for a recall. And because the reasons for removal are so broadly defined in the law, disputes over policy — such as removing the name of a Confederate general from a high school or allowing for hybrid school instruction during a pandemic — are alleged to be a dereliction or neglect of duty. So far, judges hearing these cases and the commonwealth’s attorneys representing the state’s interests seem to recognize the paucity of the charges and the cases have been withdrawn or dismissed. The rare instance of an official being removed from office occurred in 2010, when a judge ordered a recall election that resulted in the removal of Portsmouth Mayor James W. Holley III.

Not only does Virginia’s process tie up the courts’ precious time and waste public resources, but it also subjects people duly elected to their jobs to attack and intimidation. One Loudoun County School Board member resigned in the face of a recall by a conservative parent group. Who could blame anyone considering a run for these often thankless jobs to think again?

Legislation pending before the General Assembly, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), would overhaul the process, including raising the threshold for signatures and requiring an election for removal, rather than a court process. Citizens need a way to hold officials accountable for egregious actions after they are in office, but Virginia’s permissive system is one that threatens to thwart the will of voters.