Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

June 10, 2012

George Weeks: Recalls work best at local government level

Want to recall a Michigan governor? Forget about it.

A second effort to get enough signatures to get on the ballot to recall Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was abandoned last week, just as were earlier feeble bids to recall 1983-90 Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard over tax hikes and 1991-2002 Republican Gov. John Engler over budget cuts.

In the wake of the extensive national coverage of last week's failed Wisconsin effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker over his efforts to limit union collective bargaining rights, it is timely to note that Michigan has quite a history on the recall issue.

In 1908, Michigan and Oregon were the first states to adopt recall procedures for state-level recalls. Minnesota in 1996 and New Jersey in 1993 were the most recent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Before the Michigan-Oregon effort, the recall device, according to NCSL, began in the United States in a municipality — Los Angeles — in 1903.

The NCSL in an update after the Wisconsin vote, said:

"Historically, recall attempts at the state level have been unsuccessful. The recall is used much more often, and with more success, at the local level.

"There have been three gubernatorial recall elections held in U.S. history. In 2012, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived a recall attempt. In 2003, California voters successfully recalled Governor Gray Davis, and in North Dakota in 1921, voters removed from office not only Governor Lynn J. Frazier, but also the attorney general and the commissioner of agriculture.

"California voters have initiated 32 gubernatorial recall attempts since 1911, but the 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 was the first to ever reach the ballot. In 1988, Arizona voters filed enough signatures to trigger a recall election for Governor Evan Mecham, but he was impeached by the state's House of Representatives before the date of the scheduled recall election."

Union anti-Snyder efforts were far more subdued than they were against Walker in Wisconsin. The Michigan Rising lead organization announced Thursday it had only collected about 10,000 signatures on its recall petitions, far, far short of its needed goal of 807,000.

"Actually, we were shooting for 1.1 million, so we were far off the pace," Michigan Rising communications director Bruce Fealk said in the Detroit News, saying it was Walker's Wisconsin victory that ended the group's recall efforts.

"The recall people in Wisconsin had the unions and the Democratic Party behind them, but it still didn't work," Fealk said. "Despite all the commotion, protests and grassroots efforts, it still didn't make it. It would make it that much harder to succeed in Michigan so that gave us pause."

Such pause is wise. Snyder — true to his primary campaign — is far more accommodating (I'd say "reasonable") to labor and other opponents than is Walker, who in an effort to deal with Wisconsin's $3.3 billion budget shortfall moved to curb collective bargaining rights of public unions.

While Wisconsin had the recall headlines last week, the Citizen Research Council of Michigan notes that recall is much more common in Michigan than in Wisconsin. It said: "At least 457 state and local elected officials faced a recall election in Michigan between 2000 and 2011, an average of 38 per year. Although recall attempts aimed at state office holders garner the most attention, recall is primarily a local phenomenon."

Two state legislators were recalled in 1983, and one in 2011.

The Citizen Research Council said: "Recall elections in Michigan have been overwhelming targeted at non-county general purpose local governments (cities, villages, and townships). City, village, and township officials comprise 67 percent of the elected officials eligible to be recalled and 89 percent of those subjected to recalls during this time period.

"Township officials alone represent 41 percent of the elected officials eligible to be recalled and 65 percent of those subjected to recalls during this time period.

"Compared to other states, Michigan appears to have a high number of recall elections. Reasons for Michigan's large number of recall elections include its high number of elected officials relative to other states as well as certain provisions in Michigan's recall law such as allowing recalls for political reasons rather than limiting recall to specific reasons such as misfeasance or malfeasance."

Having offered some historical perspective on recalls, I also offer my negative view on recalls except in extreme cases:

After determining views of a politician--whether at the statewide or local level--for a two-year or whatever term; evaluate his or her performance while in office; and then decide whether to re-elect or reject. Beats recalls or term limits.

The attempted recalls of Blanchard, Engler and Snyder were ill-advised.

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