How Mayoral Recall Could, and Wouldn’t, Have Worked

Chris Game

We’ll never know, of course, whether a well publicised mayoral recall provision could have swung some of those lost referendums. My own view is that, with a half-decently organised Government-led Yes campaign – detailing the ‘city deals’ that mayoral cities could expect, and confirming that mayors elected by voters would be recallable by voters – several additional referendums, including Birmingham’s, were comfortably winnable. 

What is surely undeniable is that Ministers’ refusal even to address the issue of recall – to which the Government had been publicly, if reticently, committed since its January 2011 mayoral impact assessment – understandably increased people’s doubts about elected mayors and ultimately cost votes.

I’ve been wondering this past week – over the final stages of arguably the second most important US election this year – whether, if those mayoral referendums had been held just a month later, the topic might have forced itself on to our electoral agenda, and, if so, with what effect?

The election in question was only the third time in US history that a state Governor faced the prospect of being voted out of office in a recall election – and the first time ever that the defending Governor had won. That’s the statistical measure of what happened on Tuesday in the state of Wisconsin; its historical importance will be seen between now and the Presidential election on November 6th.

Scott Walker – the conservative Republican politician, not the “Make It Easy on Yourself” one – was elected Governor of Wisconsin in November 2010 on a platform of tax cuts for businesses and the well-off and wage cuts for public employees.  Inheriting a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit, he almost immediately unleashed the most politically inflammatory Budget Repair Bill imaginable.

Public employees’ wage increases were capped at the rate of inflation, their pension and health insurance contributions increased and the programmes cut. Above all, though, this was an attack on the Democratic Party through the public sector unions, who saw their incomes slashed and – going beyond any campaign pledges – their collective bargaining rights virtually abolished.

There were furious protests and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, negotiations and some amendments, major procedural delay, judicial review, and finally reference to the state Supreme Court. Eventually, however, the Bill was passed, and opponents turned their attentions to recall. 

Recall – enabling a citizens’ vote to remove and replace a public official before the end of their term of office – is almost as long established in the US as the other way of getting rid of them, through the more judicial route of impeachment. With 150 recall elections and 75 recalls across the country in 2011 – including, incidentally, two mayors – its deployment, particularly at local level, is widespread, but it is not universal, and removal of senior state officials through recall is exceptional.

Wisconsin is one of 19 states to permit recall elections for governors and other state officials, but in the hundred years pre-Walker the impact had been limited to a couple of state senators being recalled and a couple surviving recall elections. As for state governors, there had been just two gubernatorial recall elections in all US history – both lost by the incumbent, but neither, contrary to what might be imagined, having anything to do with corruption or personal misconduct.

North Dakota’s Governor Lynn Davis was held personally responsible for the savage agricultural depression of the early 1920s. More famously and somewhat similarly, Gray Davis in 2003 was blamed for California’s electricity shortage – created partly by market manipulation by energy companies like Enron – and the budget crisis that followed the burst of the dot-com bubble, and was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Recall procedures vary from state to state, although all involve gathering large numbers of signatures on a citizens’ petition. Wisconsin required signatures equalling 25% of the total votes cast for the office of governor at the last election – roughly 540,000 – to be collected within 60 days, which, when I first heard it, struck me as mountainous.

But what do I know? Wisconsinites, certainly when riled, and led by powerful public sector unions, can be a formidable force, and within just 30 days they were almost there, with over half a million names.  They eventually got to 900,000 – 23% of the state’s eligible voters and 46% of voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election. On the face of it, then, things looked tricky for Governor Walker – until you put the petitioners’ undoubtedly impressive organisation up against the sheer weight of the incumbent’s cash. 

Particularly since the Supreme Court’s historic ‘Citizens United’ decision in 2008, holding that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, effective controls over campaign fund-raising in non-federal elections have been almost non-existent.

The two sides in the Wisconsin recall election are estimated to have raised $63 million, with Walker outspending his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, by 7 to 1. In these quantities, money talks loud. As election day approached, the gap between the candidates grew and the final result saw Walker create history with an increased vote share of 53% to 46%.

But, if it was unfortunate for Barrett, also the defeated candidate in 2010, it’s potentially dire for President Obama, his economic policy, and re-election prospects. The public sector unions are vital both financially and organisationally to the Democrats in general and Obama in particular. In a state that voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections, Scott Walker took the unions and their members on, scythed them down, and survived. There are 28 other Republican governors out there, many just waiting for this sign.

As for the influence, if any, these extraordinary events might have had on UK public opinion and the mayoral referendums, I really have no idea. They’d have made it harder for Ministers to maintain their almost Trappist silence on the recall issue, but at the same time would presumably have encouraged the idea that elected mayors would Americanise our politics, which is neither accurate nor, judging from this instance, an altogether edifying prospect. The one certainty is that this is definitely not the last we’ll hear on the subject. Whether in relation to MPs, mayors or police commissioners, recall ain’t going to go away.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

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