By: Helen L. Brewer
Colorado is one of 19 states in which voters can recall elected officials from office at any time. Generally, recall elections occur when a certain percentage of a state’s population (determined by state law) signs a petition demanding a recall election be held. In some states, two elections are held: one in which voters must vote “Yes” or “No” on whether to recall the official against whom the petitions were directed, and a second election (if a majority of voters votes “Yes” in the first election) in which the recalled official’s successor is elected. In other states, including Colorado, these questions are placed on the same ballot – the recall process culminates in a single election.
In Colorado, localities can lay out recall processes for officials such as school board members or county commissioners. The processes to recall statewide officials, like legislators and governors, are laid out in state law.
Colorado has seen only two statewide officials successfully recalled – in 2013, Senate President John Morse and State Senator Angela Giron were both removed from the Colorado General Assembly. This number hasn’t changed, but throughout 2019, Colorado’s political landscape has roiled with recalls. Various groups have launched recall efforts against Governor Jared Polis and five state legislators. None of these recall efforts have succeeded, but the uproar they caused in Colorado politics has prompted two state legislators to lead charges to reform Colorado’s recall law.
Republican State Senator Jack Tate, dissatisfied with what he saw as a disruptive effect of last year’s recalls on Colorado’s government, has proposed the Colorado VOTER Act (VOTER stands for “Valuing Open, Truthful, and Ethical Recalls”). This Act would, among other things, prohibit Coloradans from initiating a recall campaign against a state legislator during the four months out of each year the General Assembly is in session. It would also require recall elections to be based only on “statements of verifiable fact.”
Democratic State Representative Tom Sullivan was the subject of one of 2019’s failed recall efforts in Colorado and likewise plans on attempting to change Colorado’s recall law in the General Assembly’s 2020 session. He hopes to implement specific grounds for recall (for example, some states only allow recalls if an elected official commits an act of malfeasance or is found to be corrupt). Representative Sullivan also wants to change the amount of petition signatures Colorado requires to force a recall election. Instead of requiring a number of signatures equivalent to 25% of the number of people who voted for the office subject to recall, as Colorado currently requires, Representative Sullivan wants the state to demand a number of signatures equal to 25% of a district’s registered voters.
How might these policy changes play out in Colorado? First, political scientist Robert Preuhs has noted that Senator Tate’s proposal to require recall elections be based on factual statements may be relatively toothless – Colorado’s constitution still allows recalls for any reason. However, Senator Tate’s effort to prohibit recall of state legislators while Colorado’s General Assembly is in session may have a noticeable effect on Colorado politics. As Representative Sullivan has also emphasized recently, drawing on his personal experience in 2019, fighting a recall costs legislators money they could have saved to spend on reelection and time and attention they could have devoted to policy issues affecting their constituents. So, Senator Tate’s proposal may indeed prevent Colorado legislators from being sucked into an endless campaign cycle and give them more time to do the work they ran for office to do.
Both of Representative Sullivan’s ideas have been implemented in other states. For example, Alaska requires an elected official demonstrate lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties, or corruption to be recalled. No Alaska legislator or governor has ever been recalled, but an effort is currently underway to recall Governor Mike Dunleavy on charges including separation of powers violations after he made several significant vetoes to the state’s budget. What could this mean for Colorado? Perhaps that, if the state requires specific grounds for recall, powerful recall efforts at the state level will be rare but still possible under serious circumstances.
What if Colorado requires recall campaigns to gather a number of signatures equivalent to 25% of registered voters in a district, instead of only 25% of the number of people who voted for the office subject to recall in the last election? Again, perhaps recall campaigns will become more scarce. Of the five states with signature thresholds based on numbers of registered voters, only Idaho has seen a recall election – two state legislators were recalled in 1971.
To many people, though, none of these changes would be good ones. For example, Colorado Representative Dave Williams does not believe politicians should be able to shield themselves from what he views as “democracy in action” in the form of a recall. Indeed, contentious debate exists about whether recall elections embody the essence of democracy or merely allow disgruntled interest groups to undo the results of elections they lost. In a state with a history of rocky debate over how much direct democracy is too much direct democracy, Colorado legislators and voters will likely face a high-profile, extremely nuanced debate as they reconsider the recall.