Year that broke the recall? Why COVID led to recalls flopping nationwide

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With the high profile recall against California Gov. Gavin Newsom and efforts targeting hundreds of school board members over pandemic restrictions, 2021 seemed to be the year of the recall — but the idea that this was a banner year for recalls is far from true. The stats show that 2021 may instead have been the year that broke the recall, as the measure repeatedly, and embarrassingly, flopped.

It’s perfectly reasonable to feel the recall was nearly everywhere this year. There seemed to be an explosion in threatened or attempted recalls in 2021 — more than 600 throughout the country. Since I started compiling yearly data in 2011, the highest total I had counted was in 2012, when we saw 507 attempts. In an average year, we can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 350-450 attempts. Most notably, recalls against school board members truly exploded, at least tripling over the usual numbers.

But the threats and attempts are not the real story.

In most years, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of all recall attempts either get to the ballot or result in a resignation. But this year, that number dropped considerably. There were only 66 recall votes, and 17 resignations in 2021. This is tied for the fewest with 2020, a year when COVID pandemic restrictions prevented signature gathering in many areas. And 2020 had about 434 recalls attempted — so the drop off in recalls that got to the ballot was truly significant.

While a slew of recalls were threatened in 2021, they rarely went anywhere.

The big story is what happened when they got to the ballot. When you consider the fact that America has an estimated 500,000 elected officials — with the caveat that not all are subject to recalls — recalls are relatively rare. They are almost always activated against local officials, with fewer than 50 taking place against state-level officials in U.S. history. But what distinguishes them is that they are generally very successful. Most officials who run for re-election win their races. But the recall turns that dynamic on its head. From 2011-2020, when a recall got to the ballot it had about a 60 percent chance of resulting in removal. Additionally, about 6 percent of the officials targeted resigned rather than face a recall vote. 2021 saw a very different result.

But in 2021, officials survived more than 60 percent of them, the first year that more officials survived than lost a recall election. It was not just Newsom’s blowout win in September. Throughout the country, elected officials survived recalls at an astonishing rate, from a socialist Seattle city councilwoman, to numerous school board members in Wisconsin and Idaho to officials in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Missouri and Nebraska.

What was the change from past years that resulted in so many officials avoiding the dark fate of a recall loss? The answer was the same reason there were so many recall attempts in the first place — COVID.

Nearly every recall focused on elected officials who failed. Whether it was Newsom or eight officials in Idaho, four Mequon-Thiensville school board members in Wisconsin or the mayor of Nixa, Mo., voters rejected the recalls that targeted officials facing a recall for their support for pandemic restrictions. The only official who seemed to lose over the issue was a Dodge County, Wis., supervisor (though there seemed to be a mix of issues). In 2020, only two officials lost their seats in a recall vote on COVID, though one of them, the Oregon City, Ore., mayor, was actually opposed to restrictions.  

The overwhelming threat of recalls has led to calls for changes or the outright elimination of the device. California is currently debating proposals that would rein in its use. But the 2021 results can be viewed as a statement in favor of the recall. Despite perceptions by many commentators, recalls are rarely about corruption or misuse of office — nor were they intended to be limited to that use by its early proponents. They are not usually purely political in nature; instead, they generally are focused on policy, whether it is firing a police chief or opposition to a development proposal or merging two school districts.

In that sense, the pandemic restrictions fit perfectly. The response to the pandemic was a major policy change for most people — arguably the most extensive policy decision in U.S. history for the average citizen’s everyday life. It is not surprising that there would be a reaction from voters. And what the recall results showed was that the average voter overwhelmingly endorsed the actions of elected officials. When given a chance, they either refused to sign the petitions in great enough numbers to get a recall on the ballot or they voted in favor of the official, effectively ratifying the pandemic precautions put in place. Newsom was a prime example. Total turnout for Newsom’s special election was higher than in his original election in 2018. And despite effectively running against himself, he won overwhelmingly, by the same margin as in 2018.

While 2021 may feel like the year the recall caught fire, a close look at the results show a very different picture. Instead of ousting officials and leading to a change in policy, the recalls worked to ratify officials’ decisions to enact pandemic restrictions. In that way, the recall can be seen as working as intended.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags covid restrictions Gavin Newsom Recall Recall election Right to petition school boards

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