A recall election (also called a recall referendum or representative recall) is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before their term has ended. Recalls, which are initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition, have a history dating back to the ancient Athenian democracy and are a feature of several contemporary constitutions. In indirect or representative democracy people's representatives are elected and these representatives rule for a specific period of time. But if any representative is not properly discharging their responsibilities, then they can be called back with the written request of specific number of voters.
The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia enacted representative recall in 1995. In that province, voters in a provincial riding can petition to have their representative in parliament removed from office, even if that MLA is also the premier. (Holding a seat in the legislature is not constitutionally necessary to be premier, however.) If enough registered voters sign the petition, the speaker of the legislature announces in parliament that the member has been recalled and the lieutenant governor drops the writ for a by-election as soon as possible, giving voters the opportunity to replace the politician in question. By January 2003, 22 recall efforts had been launched. No one has been recalled so far, but one representative, Paul Reitsma, resigned in 1998 when it looked as if the petition to recall him would have enough signatures to spur a recall election. Reitsma resigned during the secondary verification stage and the recall count ended.
While recalls are not provided for at the federal level in Switzerland, six cantons allow them:
Bern: Recall of the executive and legislative is possible since 1846. 30,000 signatures (4% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. There has been one unsuccessful attempt to recall the executive in 1852 ('Schatzgelder' affair).
Schaffhausen: Recall of the executive and legislative is possible since 1876. 1,000 signatures (2% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. There has been one unsuccessful attempt to recall the executive in 2000 triggered by the lawyer and cantonal MP Gerold Meier.
Solothurn: Recall of the executive and legislative is possible since 1869. 6,000 signatures (3% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. There has been one unsuccessful attempt to recall the executive and legislative in 1995 (related to a banking scandal). Three further attempts failed to collect the necessary number of signatures (1887, 1961, 1973).
Ticino: Recall of the executive is possible since 1892. 15,000 signatures (7% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. There has been one unsuccessful recall attempt in 1942. In addition, recall of municipal executives is possible since 2011. Signatures of 30% of all adult citizens are required to trigger a recall referendum.
Thurgau: Recall of the executive and legislative is possible since 1869. 20,000 signatures (13% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. There have been no recall attempts.
Uri: Recall of the executive and legislative is possible since 1888. Since 1979 600 signatures (3% of all adult citizens) are required to trigger a recall referendum. In addition, recall of municipal executives and legislatives is possible since 2011. Signatures of 10% of registered voters are required to trigger a recall referendum. There have been no recall attempts either at the cantonal or municipal levels.
The possibility of recall referendums (together with the popular election of executives, the initiative and the legislative referendum) was introduced into several cantonal constitutions after the 1860s in the course of a broad movement for democratic reform. The instrument has never been of any practical importance – the few attempts at recall so far have failed, usually because the required number of signatures was not collected – and it was abolished in the course of constitutional revisions in Aargau (1980), Baselland (1984) and Lucerne (2007). The only successful recall so far happened in the Canton of Aargau in the year 1862. But the possibility of recalling municipal executives was newly introduced in Ticino in 2011, with 59% of voters in favor, as a reaction to the perceived problem of squabbling and dysfunctional municipal governments.
Submitting petitions for the recall of Seattle, Washington mayor Hiram Gill in December 1910; Gill was removed by a recall election the following February, but voters returned him to the office in 1914.
Recall first appeared in Colonial America in the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. This version of the recall involved one elected body removing another official. During the American Revolution the Articles of Confederation stipulated that state legislatures might recall delegates from the continental congress. According to New York Delegate John Lansing, the power was never exercised by any state. The Virginia Plan, issued at the outset of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, proposed to pair recall with rotation in office and to apply these dual principles to the lower house of the national legislature. The recall was rejected by the Constitutional Convention. However, the anti-Federalists used the lack of recall provision as a weapon in the ratification debates.
Several states proposed adopting a recall for US senators in the years immediately following the adoption of the Constitution. However, it did not pass.
In Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island, and Washington, specific grounds are required for a recall. Some form of malfeasance or misconduct while in office must be identified by the petitioners. The target may choose to dispute the validity of the grounds in court, and a court then judges whether the allegations in the petition rise to a level where a recall is necessary. In the November 2010 general election, Illinois passed a referendum to amend the state constitution to allow a recall of the state's governor, in light of former Governor Rod Blagojevich's corruption scandal. In the other eleven states that permit statewide recall, no grounds are required and recall petitions may be circulated for any reason. However, the target is permitted to submit responses to the stated reasons for recall.
The minimum number of signatures and the time limit to qualify a recall vary among the states. In addition, the handling of recalls once they qualify differs. In some states, a recall triggers a simultaneous special election, where the vote on the recall, as well as the vote on the replacement if the recall succeeds, are on the same ballot. In the 2003 California recall election, over 100 candidates appeared on the replacement portion of the ballot. In other states, a separate special election is held after the target is recalled, or a replacement is appointed by the Governor or some other state authority.
In 2011, there were at least 150 recall elections in the United States. Of these, 75 officials were recalled, and nine officials resigned under threat of recall. Recalls were held in 17 states in 73 different jurisdictions. Michigan had the most recalls (at least 30). The year set a record for number of state legislator recall elections (11 elections) beating the previous one-year high (three elections). Three jurisdictions adopted the recall in 2011.
1977 recall of County Judge Archie Simonson, Madison, Wisconsin
1977 recall of Five members of the La Crosse School Board, La Crosse, Wisconsin
1983 recall of Michigan state senators Phil Mastin and David Serotkin due to their support for a state income tax hike. Loss of these two Democratic lawmakers, along with two special elections won by Republicans, flipped the state senate to GOP control, where it has remained ever since (as of September 2011.)
2002 recall of multiple Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, elected county officials including Executive F. Thomas Ament (resigned before election); Board Chair Karen Ordinans; and Board Supervisors Penny Podell, LeAnn Launstein, David Jasenski, Kathy Arciszewski, James McGuigan, and Linda Ryan. All were recalled due to a retirement pension controversy.
2011 recall of Neal Knight, Mayor of Cornelius, Oregon, and city councilors Mari Gottwald and Jamie Minshall, less than a year after their election, due to unhappiness over their votes to fire the city manager.
2011 recall of multiple Killeen, Texas elected city officials including Mayor Pro Tem Scott Cosper and four city council members.
Note: Wisconsin's Jim Holperin has the distinction of being the only U.S. politician to have been subjected to recall from service in two different legislative bodies: the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1990 and the Wisconsin State Senate in 2011. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
Unsuccessful attempts to qualify recall elections
1988 Evan Mecham, Governor of Arizona, was scheduled for a recall election on May 17 of that year, after a successful petition drive (301,000 signatures). However, the Supreme Court of Arizona canceled the election, since Mecham had already been impeached and removed from office by the Senate on April 4.
2011, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in November that the Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth did not have the jurisdiction in entering an injunction against the Hamilton County Election Commission. In its judgment summary the Appeals Court said, "The trial court acted without jurisdiction in entering an injunction against the Election Commission. The judgment of the trial court is vacated and the complaint dismissed." Mayor Littlefield is continuing legal action to stop the recall.
2011 recall of Alaska State Representative Kyle Johansen, rejected by the state's Division of Elections on October 10. Republicans in his district sponsored the recall when Johansen and fellow representative Charisse Millett left the House's majority caucus in a dispute over Johansen's role in the 27th Legislature. In 2012, Johansen ran for reelection as an independent and lost by a wide margin; Millett was reelected.
2012 recall of Wisconsin State Senator Pam Galloway. On March 16, 2012, Galloway announced her resignation from office due to health issues in her family.
Article 72: All [...] offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation.
Once one-half of the term of office to which an official has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters representing at least 20% of the registered voters in the affected constituency may petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke that official's mandate.
When a number of voters equal to or greater than the number of those who elected the official vote in favour of the recall, provided that a number of voters equal to or greater than 25% of the total number of registered voters vote in the recall referendum, the official's mandate shall be deemed revoked and immediate action shall be taken to fill the permanent vacancy as provided for by this Constitution and by law.
^Article V of the Articles of Confederation provided, "a power reserved to each state, to recall its delegates, or any of them, at any time within the year, and to send others in their stead, for the remainder of the Year."