Can Citizens Remove a Politician From Office?

by Frank B. Chavez III

In the United States, federal officials can be removed from office before their term is up only by the process known as impeachment. However, state and local officials can be removed from office through a procedure known as a recall. Recalls are typically carried out by special elections called for by voters.

What Is a Recall?

A recall is an attempt by the voters to remove politicians from public offices before their term is up. Currently allowed at the state level in 18 states and at the local level by 29 states, a recall is a political process involving an election, while impeachment is legal process similar to a trial. The most recent successful statewide recall was the 2003 removal of California Gov. Gray Davis.

Pros and Cons

The supporters of the recall process argue that elected officials are servants of their constituents, not their masters. They believe that recalls give voters the ability to deal with officials who are incompetent or not acting in their constituents' best interest. Recall opponents argue that the possibility of recall damages elected officials' ability to act independently. Recall, it is claimed, runs contrary to the nature of electing good candidates and giving them time to work before the next election. Opponents argue that recall elections are vulnerable to influence by wealthy interests.

History

According to the attorney and historian Joshua Spivak, the history of the recall dates back to laws adopted by the states following the American Revolution. However, the early form of recall dealt with the authority of an elected body such as the state legislature to remove another elected official such as a governor. A popular political weapon, recall was not adopted by the framers of the Constitution. The modern form of recall election developed in the early 20th century.

California Recall Election

The recall of California Gov. Gray Davis became the first successful gubernatorial recall in the state's history. It was also only the second successful recall of a governor since North Dakota recalled its governor, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture in 1921. The California recall was notable for having 135 candidates, including celebrities such as former child-star Gary Coleman and the eventual winner, action-movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Process

Like the initiative process, recalls require citizen petitions in order to be placed on the ballot. However, recall petitions require more signatures than initiatives, generally a percentage of the votes cast for the office in question. Some states require a percentage of eligible voters. Once the recall is on the ballot, it is decided in one of two ways. In Colorado and California, voters are asked if the official should be recalled and then asked to vote for a replacement. In the other states, voters are asked whether or not a particular official should be removed from office. If the recall happens, a special election is held for a replacement.

Requirements

Only eight states that allow recalls have special requirements for them. These requirements include negligence, mental or physical unfitness, criminal behavior, corruption, and incompetence. However, most states that allow recalls recognize their political nature. The Michigan Constitution, for example, states that the reason for recall is considered "a political rather than a judicial question."

About the Author

Frank B. Chavez III has been a professional writer since 2006. His articles have appeared on numerous websites including WitchVox and Spectrum Nexus as well as in the e-magazine Gods and Empires. He has his associate degree with an emphasis in theater arts from Chabot College, where he received the theater department's Joeray Madrid Award for Excellence in Dramaturgy.

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