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Wis. Recall’s Original Supporters Never Saw This Coming


For over a year, the potential recall of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has been the canvas on which all other state politics have been painted. The recall seeps its way into all other political discussions, from the presidential race, to the pending U.S. Senate race, to local city-council races.

Recall supporters claim this is all very natural, as the state constitution has allowed for the recall of state officials since 1926. As the Democratic party of Wisconsin boasts on its website, “the exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed right to force a recall election is a just and proper tool to force accountability upon those elected officials who act as if there is none.”

The recall amendment began in the early 1900s as part of a slate of progressive “good government” reforms meant to decrease the role of special interests on the political process. Progressives believed the recall put more power in the hands of the people, allowing voters to remove corrupt elected officials. Further, they believed the recall mechanism was a way to purge the political process of the influence of money.

However, the first successful state recall occurred in 1996, 70 years after passage of the amendment. And with the state having been subjected to 15 recall elections in the span of a year, the effect of the recall amendment has been the exact opposite of what the amendment’s original proponents intended.

In a report I issued last week, (“The History of the Recall in Wisconsin”) I demonstrate how the recall provision’s original supporters never intended it to be used as it has been in the past two years.

#more#For instance, the recall amendment’s supporters never could have envisioned that most state elected office terms would be extended to four years 41 years after enactment of the recall. When the recall amendment passed in 1926, all state officials except state senators had two-year terms. For the same reason that current two-year term Assembly representatives are not the subject of recall attempts, it wouldn’t have made sense to hold a recall election against a governor in May when he was up for election in November.

Terms for governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general, and other offices weren’t extended to four years until 1967, when voters amended the state Constitution, thereby making those offices plausibly eligible for recalls. Yet in 1967, there was no public recognition or discussion that those offices could now be recalled; the process had never been used, and there is no evidence it was included in the debate.

Thus, without anyone realizing it, the recall was now an option for offices other than state senators and judges. This would have even been a surprise to 1926 recall proponents, who argued that the process would rarely be used. Presumably, in their view, they didn’t think recalling governors was necessary, as there was always another election around the corner.

In fact, virtually all the public discussion surrounding adoption of the recall centered around its effect on an independent judiciary, not on elected officials. Almost every press account leading up to the public vote in 1926 referred to the amendment as the “judicial recall” or the “recall of judges” amendment. Furthermore, the recall’s primary opponents were lawyers’ organizations fearful that judges would be removed from office by special interests after issuing unpopular rulings.

 Furthermore, at the time the recall amendment was adopted, supporters believed the threat of recall would keep elected officials representative of the people. As the argument went, officials would be more responsive to the public than to special interests if their constituents could pull them out of office for corruption. Numerous progressives argued recalls would aid in keeping the influence of money out of politics.

The recent rounds of recall elections have demonstrated this to be the exact opposite of what eventually happened. Moneyed interests are now able, through spending and technology, to force a recall election of any elected official they wish for virtually any reason they deem acceptable. The recall elections have generated significant political spending by both sides.

It could be argued that elected officials have become less answerable to their constituents; they are increasingly dependent on groups that can use Facebook, Twitter, and Excel databases to threaten and cajole them into supporting their ideological agendas.

Finally, recall proponents argued that passing the amendment was proper given how scarcely it would be used. In order to go through with the rigorous process of collecting signatures, an elected official would have had to have “dishonored their commissions by betraying the public interest,” according to progressive leader Robert M. La Follette Sr. And for nearly 100 years, those that thought the recall would be used judiciously were right.

But in 2011, this “extreme” case standard applied to six Republican state senators who supported Governor Walker’s collective-bargaining plan. Even more telling were the three recall elections held against Senate Democrats, organized largely as retribution for their efforts to recall Republicans.

And while the stated purpose for recalling the six Republican state senators was the erosion of their “collective-bargaining rights,” at no point during the recall elections did candidates or their supporters run television or radio ads mentioning the collective bargaining issue. Presumably, if Republican senators had done something so objectionable as to warrant recall, one would think it would be worth mentioning in the course of the campaign.

In late October 1926, Manitowoc attorney I. J. Nash, the former Wisconsin reviser of statutes, wrote a prescient commentary urging Wisconsinites to reject the recall amendment. Such a constitutional provision would make Wisconsin the “laughingstock of the country,” he wrote, adding that a recall proceeding is “slow, conducted with passion, expensive, sets neighbor against neighbor, is unaccompanied by sworn or other competent evidence, and convinces few that justice has been served.” Nash’s observation seems to be the only recall-era prediction that seems to have been borne out by the current process.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.


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