Total Recall: Great Movie, Dangerous Political Process

By Joe Figueroa 

Fresh off of a convincing 52-46 electoral victory, a young, dynamic politician has recently come under fire for the passage of a bill that he considers to be a hallmark of his legacy.

And it is not President Obama.

True, the parallels between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the 44th President are noteworthy.  But unlike Mr. Obama, a quirky yet significant electoral procedure stands in the way of Governor Walker even completing his first term in office.

Following Wisconsin law, multiple public committees have been formed to gather the requisite number of voter signatures needed to hold a recall election of Governor Walker.  One of those committees has already submitted a signature petition that is estimated to have twice the amount of the 540,000 signatures needed to hold an election.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has yet to verify the signatures or officially call an election.  But the day is coming.  If there are a sufficient number of valid signatures, a recall election will be held in May (if only one or two candidates file) or June (if more than two file).

The recall procedures underway in Wisconsin, which have been ongoing since last year (six recall elections were held last August against Republican state legislators, with four winning the elections and remaining in office), are a prime example of a rare and controversial practice in American Politics.

Recall (pun intended) the famed recall election in 2003 of California Governor Gray Davis.  Davis, who had lost touch with the voters and his Democratic colleagues in the legislature early in his second term, lost a recall fight in the October 2003 election that elevated Arnold Schwarzenegger (the Arnold Schwarzenegger of, you guessed it, Total Recall fame) to the Governor’s Mansion.  At the time, many Californians heralded the election as small d democracy at its finest;  an exercise of discretion by the electorate over an unresponsive and out-of-touch politician.

For all the grandstanding over the Davis recall, however, 2003 was only the second instance in American history of a sitting governor being recalled.  Governor Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was the only other state executive to be shown the door mid-term, in 1921.  In addition, the National Council on State Legislatures has tallied only 36 instances where state legislators have had to face recall elections, and only 17 legislators who have fallen by recall.

Recall elections also have the danger of steamrolling the political process.  The ability of an angry majority to vote a politician out because they do not like his politics has to rustle some twists and turns in the grave of James Madison.  Writing in the famed Federalist No. 10, Madison addressed the concern “that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”  And that is just Madison starting out kindly; he later goes on to say that pure democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Madison’s solution was to trust the politicians.  Elected officials in a republican government, “whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations,” are more conducive to understanding and perpetuating policies that further the public good.  Mr. Madison would be shocked to hear that today’s elected officials can simply be replaced a moment’s notice by his dreaded “faction.”

Recall elections can not only have a steamrolling effect, but a snowballing one as well.  Once the public is aroused as to the existence and influence of the recall power, it is very easy for groups of concerned citizens to use it with greater frequency.  This was never more true than in 2011; of the 36 recall elections to take place in American history, almost a third of them (11) took place last year.  People had recall on their minds.

Recalls are still rare in American Politics.  They can also be a useful tool when a politician has lost their grip with the electorate, with their base, or with reality.  Politicians still are the servants of the people.  But the factional element of recall elections should give people pause before wielding the sword of the ballot box on their elected officials.  Give them a chance.  Do it for Madison.

Joe Figueroa is a first-year student at William and Mary Law.

Permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/?p=4293

 

 

 

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