Throwing Them Out Isn’t Easy
The guy in the photo is Lynn J. Frazier. He was the first public official in the country removed from office by recall. It happened in 1921 in North Dakota.
Frazier had been elected governor three different times on the Non-Partisan League ticket, but his radical brand of progressive politics eventually got him crosswise with the state’s voters. Ironically, he advocated that the recall provision be added to the state constitution and almost immediately it was used against him.
The recall of a governor has happened only one other time. Gray Davis suffered Lynn Frazier’s fate in California in 2003. All this by way of saying, recalling an elected official, as has now been proposed in Idaho (and in Wisconsin), isn’t easy.
The Idahoans who say they want to recall State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna have a big hill to climb. First, they need to collect just north of 158,000 valid signatures (meaning they probably need to gather thousands more) and have only two and a half months to get the job done. That is a lot of standing around in Walmart parking lots and PTA meetings and it will require hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. Such efforts normally dictate paid signature gathering, but if this effort is, as it seems to be, truly grassroots, then the money won’t be readily available to finance the signature production.
Still, the group has a Facebook page up with (as of late yesterday) more than 4,000 friends and they has generated a good deal of media attention. Meanwhile, the Idaho State Journal reports that an American Falls high school senior has launched a “Stand with Luna” website to support the state superintendent.
Other than a handful of local election officials, Idahoans have been reluctant to resort to the recall. Two Idaho Falls state legislators were recalled in 1971. Efforts to recall two Boise legislators are also underway, resembling in some respects the widespread legislative recall efforts underway in Wisconsin.
A fellow often referred to at the time as “a St. Maries dog catcher” mounted a recall effort against Sen. Frank Church in 1967 until it dawned on everyone that there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution to recall federal officials. The dog catcher – he had some links to the John Birch Society – and his recall quickly faded away.
Nationally only 13 legislators, including the two in Idaho, have been recalled since 1913. Seven of the 13 recalls took place in Oregon and California.
The most obvious thing about these numbers, as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political writer Craig Gilbert points out, “is how seldom the recall has been used successfully. Only 18 states give their citizens the power to remove their state legislators by recall, and in only five has it actually happened. No one knows how many recalls have been attempted, but only 20 have succeeded in gathering enough valid signatures to force a recall election, and only 13 have succeeded in removing a legislator from office.”
Like I said, it’s a big hill to climb and it should be. As a general rule we have elections to get rid of politicians who fall out of favor. Still, as Gilbert notes, recalls tend to form around a not particularly partisan issue and tend to draw energy from the right of the political spectrum. Of the 13 recalled state legislators, 9 have been Republicans and some of them were recalled because they fell out of favor with their own party.
Essentially that’s what happened to Davis in California in 2003. Davis became enormously unpopular due to the state’s terrible fiscal condition and an energy crisis. The long-time Democrat, governor of an overwhelmingly blue state, saw his approval numbers go deeply in the ditch with constituents across the board, including Democrats. Enter the Governator.
Successful recalls seem to require a cause and passion, or perhaps anger. Interestingly the very conservative Americans for Limited Government is touting expansion of the recall as a way to get at politicians who aren’t tough enough on spending, an issue that increasingly cuts across all political demographics.
Considering that Luna won re-election last November with just over 60% of the vote – more than 268,000 total votes – the cause he represents – his package of education reform bills – will have to be extremely unpopular for the recall to get real legs. To date, I know of no public polling on how Luna’s education policies are playing with Idaho voters, but public comments in the media, on newspaper websites and in legislative hearings seem to trend pretty strongly against. Across the state local school boards are scrambling to implement changes, consider more layoffs and four day school weeks and deal with another year of declining budgets.
But it’s an open question as to whether this all adds up to the type of cause that typically drives a recall and whether the passion is deep enough to propel a grassroots signature campaign that results in an election. Having said that, education has often been a mobilizing issue in Idaho. Many voters may not care much about the big policy debates in Boise during a long legislative session, but they do care about the local schoolhouse and they have opinions about whether the students they most care about are getting the right kind of education.
Bottom line: the Luna recall will have to catch fire very fast and burn very hot to have a chance to succeed.
As a curious footnote to recall history, North Dakota’s booted Gov. Lynn Frazier wasn’t out of office for long. About a year after being recalled, Frazier ran for the U.S. Senate and won. He served in the Senate for 18 years until losing a Republican primary in 1940. Further proof, perhaps, that recalls are fueled by the passions of the moment and passion can cool quickly.