When I was last on Wisconsin Public Radio, one of the subjects we discussed was the proposal of Rep. Robin Vos (R–Rochester) to change the recall election process.
The qualified electors of the state of any congressional, judicial or legislative district or of a county may petition for the recall of any incumbent elective officer after the first year of the term for which the incumbent was elected, by filing a petition with the filing officer with whom the nomination petition to the office in the primary is filed, demanding the recall of the incumbent. …
Laws may be enacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall.
My counterpart professed to be in high dudgeon over the idea of restricting the right of the citizenry to recall its elected officials. (Which makes one wonder how she would have felt had Gov. James Doyle and Democratic legislators been recalled for their raising taxes by $2.1 billion and working to simultaneously wreck state finances and the state’s economy two years earlier.)
My position at the time was that changing the Constitution on recalls was no substitute for personal voter responsibility. Vos’ proposal requires a stated reason for a recall attempt, which seems easily attainable, as in “I don’t like how he voted,” which makes one wonder what is the point.
Vos’ proposal doesn’t go as far as what UW–Milwaukee Prof. Mordecai Lee suggests, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Mordecai Lee, a Democratic lawmaker in the 1980s, offers a third option: Repeal the recall provision for legislators outright.
“The only justification for recalls is misbehavior that rises to the level of a felony,” Lee said in a WisconsinEye interview last week.
Wisconsin doesn’t need the recall clause for lawmakers because state law now says any legislator who is convicted of a felony must be automatically removed from office, Lee argued.
Of course, former Rep. Jeff Wood, the alleged serial drunk driver, was never convicted of a felony, yet there should have been little question that he was unfit to hold office. Many illegal acts, acts you do not want your elected officials to be doing, are not felonies.
Marquette University Prof. Edward Fallone could reasonably be said to oppose both ideas:
The recall provisions in the Wisconsin Constitution are a right possessed by the people of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Constitution intentionally places this right in the hands of the public, and it is intentionally left unbounded. To interpret this right to be limited solely to conduct which would also constitute grounds for impeachment would be to eviscerate the right. Such a result would not only be duplicative of the separate impeachment provisions of the Wisconsin Constitution, it would also limit the ability of the voters of Wisconsin to exercise their sovereign power in any form other than by casting a vote every few years in a regularly scheduled election. One likely result of the removal or limitation of the possibility of a recall would be to make elected officials less accountable to the public and to amplify the influence wielded by lobbyists and corporate donors during the interval in between elections. …
Personally, I have faith in human nature. I believe that the public at large is capable of making wise and informed decisions on public policy. I also believe in the oft-stated principle that it is the people at large who are the ultimate sovereigns in America. Popular sovereignty is not a myth. However, I also know that if we stop believing in popular sovereignty, if we stop behaving as if the principle is real, and if we accept the premise that the people at large cannot be trusted, then we will undoubtedly succeed in transforming today’s right into tomorrow’s myth.
Fallone’s employer is represented in Congress by a self-avowed socialist and the biggest current joke in Wisconsin politics, of course. Then again, two generations ago one of Wisconsin’s U.S. senators saw Communists where there were not and didn’t see Communists where there were. Both were duly elected, and more than once.
When I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, my first-semester political science class included a textbook that featured debates on long-standing American political issues. I specifically remember one politician who wrote that the purpose of an elected official is to serve not as a carbon copy of the majority views of his constituents, but as a trustee to represent them, and if the elected official failed to do so, the elected official should be voted out of office at the next election. You may have heard of the author: John F. Kennedy.
A commenter on Fallone’s blog asks a question that has not been satisfactorily answered by anyone:
What if this becomes a pattern? What if every single January another round of recalls start, and instead of having 2 and 4 year election cycles, we have 1 year election cycles? Being stuck in a perpetuum of campaign ads is not a pleasant thought, especially when we’ll have spring non-partisan elections, summer recalls, and fall partisan elections.
That is a point that the public-employee unions and their Democratic puppets appear to have either missed or ignored. The fact that two out of six Republicans and none of three Democratic senators lost their recall elections seems to suggest that sufficiently aggrieved interest groups can generate enough signatures to trigger a recall election (including, as I believe we’ll see next year, the governor’s race), but not enough votes to actually topple the recalled-upon elected official. Which means that we have indeed entered the era of the permanent campaign, with severe consequences for making any decision at all and enormous waste of resources. Does anyone seriously believe state Sens. Jessica King (D–Oshkosh) or Jennifer Shilling (D–La Crosse) are going to make the least bit of difference in Madison?
Marquette University Prof. Rick Esenberg thinks the lack of Recallarama success might be the source of its demise:
The recalls were always a bad idea. Every one of the legislators who just faced recalls was scheduled to be up for re-election next year. If voters — having had an opportunity to assess the impact of Walker’s reforms — wished to vote them out of office, they would not have had to wait long. Recalls based upon nothing more than policy differences rest uneasily with a fixed term of office. We want our politicians to have some reasonable period of time in which they can go about the business of governing, not campaigning.
Recalls create a perpetual campaign in which there is little room for deliberation or consideration of much beyond the immediate political impact of a decision. Politicians, notorious for ignoring the long-term consequences of their actions, are unable to think in even the medium term. Being constantly at war breeds a more bellicose community. In this sense, the best possible outcome of the recalls is that they accomplished so little.
The thing is that there is never a substitute for personal responsibility on the part of the voter. It cannot be legislated, and it cannot be mandated by constitutions or regulations. You have the right to vote for a candidate because you like his last name or dislike his opponent’s last name. (That happened in a Congressional race in the 1980s.) You can be as racist or sexist as you want in the polling booth. If voters aren’t responsible, to quote Joseph de Maistre, “Every nation has the government it deserves.”
Recallarama is in fact an excellent argument for much smaller government. If state government wasn’t trying to get its mitts into every part of our lives, the stakes in elections wouldn’t be as high as they are, and there wouldn’t be as much campaign spending and as unpleasant a campaign experience as state politics now is. Either that, or candidates and voters have to start acting like adults, or at least acting in the way adults tell their children to act.