Beyond California, a record year for recalls
Voters across the country are moving to recall their elected officials at an unprecedented pace, driven in part by a backlash against restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic and in part by anger at officials who have run afoul of culture war issues.
At least 164 efforts to recall more than 260 local, city and state elected officials were underway across the country during the first half of the year, according to a tally maintained by Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan election statistics and news website.
That figure represents the largest number of recall efforts in the first half of a calendar year since 2016. If the pace of recall attempts continues, this year’s total would mark the highest number of recall attempts in at least the last decade.
Experts in recall elections say at least some of the efforts to remove elected officials stem from the prominence of one recall in particular: The bid to force California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) out of office.
Newsom opponents gathered more than 2 million signatures to force an election that will be held sometime later this year. The campaign has drawn attention both because it is happening in the nation’s most populous state and because it is drawing a cast of off-beat contenders to replace Newsom, from the reality television star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner to a host of social media influencers and at least one adult-film actress.
Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and an expert on recall elections, said he recorded a similar spike in recall activity a decade ago, in 2011 and 2012, when Wisconsin Democrats forced Gov. Scott Walker (R) into a high-profile recall election that earned the national spotlight.
Newsom is the only governor who has been forced into a recall so far, though others have active campaigns running against them. Petitioners have gathered tens of thousands of signatures to force Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) back onto the ballot; Dunleavy has said he expects that recall to qualify. Longer-shot efforts target Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).
“The fact that there was a good deal of recall talk against governors last year, and that the Newsom recall has gotten to the ballot, may have reminded people of the recall and caused them to look at it as a powerful tool,” Spivak said.
That reminder came just as anger and angst over the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns reached a zenith. At least 77 recalls have targeted officials over pandemic-related restrictions, according to Ballotpedia’s count.
But voters are also targeting elected officials over their reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests last year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the social justice and culture war issues surrounding the protests.
Opponents of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón (D) are collecting signatures to oust him just a year after he won office on a social justice platform. In San Francisco, some voters are angling to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D), who also won on a platform of overhauling the criminal justice system.
Voters in Loudoun County, Va., are collecting signatures to recall six of the nine members of the local school board. Those voters oppose teaching critical race theory in classrooms, a hot-button issue that Republican legislators have taken up in more than a dozen states in recent weeks.
In Arizona, two recalls target Republican state legislators who have made themselves the center of the controversy over the 2020 election results. One group of voters is targeting Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who attended the Jan. 6 rally and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and who continues to spread lies about his state’s election results. Another is targeting state Sen. Paul Boyer, a Republican who acknowledges former President Trump’s defeat in November and who opposes a so-called audit of Maricopa County’s votes that is ongoing.
Recalls take months — or, in Newsom’s case, more than a year — to play out. Of the 164 efforts underway during the first half of the year, 60 are still in the signature-gathering phase. Seventy-seven failed to meet a deadline to make the ballot, and nine resulted in an elected official losing his or her job. Another dozen elected officials survived recall attempts, and six officials resigned from office before the recall process was complete.
Recall petitions are most common against local elected officials: School board members and city council members make up about two-thirds of the elected officials targeted by recall attempts. Another two dozen mayors or vice mayors were targets of recall attempts.
And while recall laws exist in most states, voters in Western states are most likely to attempt to oust their incumbents. In California, 75 officials other than Newsom, Gascón and Boudin face recall attempts; 32 recall petitions are circulating in Arizona; 20 are in progress in Washington; and 17 are circulating in both Colorado and Michigan.
Spivak, the recall expert, said some of the added boost in the number of attempts this year may represent pent-up anger from last year, when the coronavirus pandemic limited signature gatherers’ attempts to force recalls on the ballot. The number of recalls that made the ballot or forced an elected official to resign dropped to the lowest point in 2020 of any year in the last decade, according to his data.
“The drop in recalls getting to the ballot was not a surprise,” Spivak wrote. “Collecting [signatures] during a pandemic seemed to be an almost impossible task.”
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