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Recalls and Responsibility
Sep 25, 2013
I am not a big fan of recall elections. This example of direct democracy is largely an artifact of the progressive era in American politics, when it was assumed that state legislatures were corrupt gaggles of bought and paid for politicians. Allowing the voters to send the rascals packing ahead of schedule was supposed to be a remedy for the said corruption.
It rarely works that way. It is the responsibility of elected legislatures to deal with genuine corruption, either in their own assemblies or in the executive branch of the government. When they fail to do so, it is the responsibility of the voters to remember that in the next regularly scheduled election.
More and more, recall elections allow passionate blocks of voters a second chance to win an election that didn’t go their way the first time. Modern means of marketing a communication make it much easier than it once was to get the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall. As turnout in off season elections is typically low, the outcome may be decided by a very small percentage of very disgruntled voters.
All that said, if you want a spectacle of democracy in action, a recall election would your chance. Just ask Colorado Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, both of whom were just ceremoniously booted from their state legislature. Senators Morse and Giron voted for a piece of gun control legislation that requires universal background checks and bans ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. These are the kind of measures that were defeated in the U.S. Congress.
Senator Morse’s defeat was less surprising. He had faced tough elections before and the voter turnout this time was very low. The turnout in Giron’s district was larger yet she lost by a larger margin, about twelve percent. Both districts were heavily Democratic in composition. Democrats in Giron’s district outnumber Republicans two to one. Yet both districts have now replaced their Democratic representatives with Republicans.
Because gun control is a national issue, outside money poured into Colorado. If you guess that outside money determined the outcome, guess again. New York Mayor and gun control advocate Michael Bloomberg contributed about as much out of his own pocket as the National Rifle Association did. Overall, pro-recall forces were outspent five to one and won just the same. Whatever you think about recall elections, this one was a genuine grassroots movement. The recall of Giron began when three plumbers decided to do more than sit around and grumble.
Nineteen states allow the recall of state legislators. Minnesota and North Dakota are among them. South Dakota is not. There have been twenty-six such elections since 1913. More than half of them happened since 1990 and about a third since 2003. That looks like a trend. If there is any lesson from Colorado, it is that politicians ignore the popular will at their peril. If the voters care enough about something, as Coloradans apparently do about gun rights, they will not be gentle with the contemptuous politician.