Readers debate what misdeeds justify an official’s early exit.
To the Editor:
After some one million Wisconsin voters signed a petition for a recall election, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is set to face a vote in early June.
Governor Walker has championed and signed into law draconian legislation that makes severe cuts to education, collective bargaining and women’s rights. Recall elections, however, should be reserved for instances of nefarious activity, not unpopular legislation.
Gubernatorial recalls are extremely rare, and with good reason. Only two American governors have been successfully recalled—Lynn Frazier of North Dakota in 1921 and Gray Davis of California in 2003.
Governor Walker, like President Obama, took office amid a period of decreased tax revenues. Wisconsin, and every other state except Vermont, is required to balance its budget by law. With higher corporate, income and property tax rates than much of the country, Governor Walker chose to balance the budget through spending cuts. As a result, the state of Wisconsin will be a more competitive place to live and do business.
To be sure, Mr. Walker has significantly limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin. Moreover, he enacted austerity measures that make harsh cuts to K-12 education and to the world-class University of Wisconsin system.
Most recently, he continued the nationwide assault on women’s rights by signing the repeal of a law that protects equal pay for women in Wisconsin.
A loyal opposition—that is, those who oppose the current administration’s policies while maintaining its legitimacy—is one of the greatest indicators of a healthy democracy. But recall elections prompted by unpopular legislation threaten the legitimacy of our representative democracy.
Eau Claire, Wis., April 23, 2012
The writer is a political science student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Mr. Brost says recall elections should be about “nefarious activity” rather than unpopular legislation or just unpopular officials. If the people of Wisconsin wanted a recall limited to a small set of misdeeds, they could have easily chosen to do so when they adopted the recall back in 1926.
Currently, 18 states provide for the recall of state-level officials (and Illinois has it for just the governor). Of those 18, 11 allow recalls for political reasons, and 7 states limit it to specific misdeeds. Almost all recalls in the United States—and there were 151 last year alone—take place in “political recall” jurisdictions.
Mr. Brost’s argument that the recall should be limited to “nefarious activity” is an old one that has already found proponents in the Wisconsin State Legislature; their proposal would restrict recalls to a narrow set of misdeeds. They will have to appeal to voters to adopt a constitutional amendment limiting the recall.
Voters appear to like broad recall laws. This proposed amendment will apparently get Mr. Brost’s vote, but good luck getting the rest of the state’s populace to back it.
Berkeley, Calif., April 25, 2012
The writer is senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and founder of the Recall Elections Blog.
I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Brost’s assertion that the recall of Governor Walker in Wisconsin is based solely on policy disagreements.
The passage of Act 10, which stripped public employees of most collective bargaining rights, happened without proper advance notice in violation of the state’s open meetings law. The new redistricting legislation was drafted in secrecy by Republicans, and G.O.P. legislators signed pledges to keep the real intent of the new maps from Democrats and the public. Some of those maps have since been rejected by the courts for discrimination against minority groups.
The voter ID law passed by Republicans and signed by Governor Walker is so flawed and unconstitutional that there are now two injunctions halting its use in state elections.
Finally, there is a sprawling, two-year investigation that seems to be circling ever closer to the governor (and which has already resulted in criminal charges of embezzlement, campaign finance violations and corruption against several of his former top aides).
The people of Wisconsin have a veritable cornucopia of reasons they believe that Mr. Walker—along with four Republican state senators—should be recalled from office. And it is their constitutional right to seek such redress of these grievances. Reducing the argument to mere difference of legislative opinion is not only false but also an insult to the millions of people in this state who have worked so tirelessly on the recall.
Madison, Wis., April 25, 2012
The problem with capricious ejection of elected officials is twofold: It negates decisions voters have made and increases the chances that voters will feel comfortable about being careless in the future. Mr. Brost correctly wishes to limit recall elections but hopes to reserve the process to combat “instances of nefarious activity.”
Unfortunately, one man’s nefarious may be only naughty to another. And a third observer may view the same acts as just nonsense, which comes awfully close to simply unpopular.
A better approach to recall of elected officials is to set a high threshold for removal. Requiring a minimum of 50 percent voter turnout and a minimum of 75 percent of votes in support of recall will ensure that only politicians who are truly wicked will be invited to leave.
Tenafly, N.J., April 26, 2012
Recall elections should become more frequent rather than less. This is true grass-roots democracy at work, in keeping with the ideal of holding government accountable at all times.
Countries that have a parliamentary form of government have “votes of confidence” in the governing majorities, which can change the governing body before the term of office ends. Recall elections are another device to modulate runaway legislation.
Fox Point, Wis., April 25, 2012
Mr. Brost’s well-written argument opposing the recall of Governor Walker doesn’t mention three key facts.
First, Wisconsin’s public employee unions agreed to Mr. Walker’s budget cuts, objecting only to their loss of bargaining rights guaranteed private-sector workers by the Wagner Act.
Second, the governor failed to outline his agenda or even to hint at it during the election campaign.
And finally, by far the worst excesses in terms of overly generous compensation to public employees involve police and firefighter unions, which were exempted from the governor’s legislation, I think, for political reasons.
Scott Walker ran as a moderate and is governing as an extremist. His duplicity during the campaign is precisely the kind of behavior that justifies his recall from office.
Ann Arbor, Mich., April 25, 2012
Any time more than a quarter of the voters in a state are prepared to say they want a new governor, having another election to decide the issue is appropriate. Recall and impeachment are not synonyms. Impeachment is the appropriate process for dealing with “nefarious activity.” Recall is, and should be, for dealing with a politician whose actions have angered enough constituents to make it possible to meet whatever the constitutional or statutory threshold may be to force a recall election.
Richmond, Calif., April 25, 2012
Though Mr. Brost suggests that recall elections “should be reserved for instances of nefarious activity” rather than unpopular legislation, in fact, “no reason need be given for the recall in the case of a state, congressional, legislative, state judicial, or county officer,” according to the Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-12.
Our most illustrious native son, Robert M. La Follette, put it best when he said, “The recall enables the people to dismiss from public service those representatives who dishonor their commissions by betraying the public interest.” Having personally collected some of the million signatures gathered to recall Governor Walker, I can attest that there were a multitude of reasons people gave for taking this step, but breaking the public trust was one of the most common.
Wisconsinites still invoke La Follette almost 90 years after his death, because he showed us what to strive for in representative government and how to do it. “Democracy is a life,” he said, “and involves continual struggle.”
Here in Wisconsin, we have taken up that life and struggle with a vengeance. A recall election may not be the path that Mr. Brost favors, but it is just as much an indicator of a healthy democracy as his “loyal opposition.” A million of us believe that it is the best way to ensure the health and longevity of democracy in Wisconsin.
Madison, Wis., April 25, 2012
Governor Walker should look at the bright side. In olden days, like 18th-century France, when the people had had enough of their leaders, they pulled the unfortunates out of overdecorated palaces, dragged them to the public square and cut off their heads.
The assertive effort of Wisconsin’s fed-up citizens through recall of an overstepping politician is democracy at its finest: nonviolent assertion of the power of the people.
New York, April 25, 2012
The Writer Responds
Recall elections are just one of a series of Progressive Era political reforms—like direct primaries, referendums and initiatives—that were implemented in the early 20th century to broaden voter involvement in our democracy. Unlike similar Progressive Era reforms, however, recall elections have the potential to significantly inhibit the ability of elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities as legislators.
Mr. Jacobs claims that Governor Walker was not candid about his agenda while campaigning to be governor. With strong Tea Party support and a compulsory balanced budget, however, it was clear that Governor Walker was going to make significant budget cuts.
Mr. Spivak and Ms. Brazill correctly mention that gubernatorial recalls need not be prompted by nefarious activity to be legitimate under Wisconsin law. But increasingly, elected officials must pursue unpopular policies that are in their constituents’ long-term best interest. Myopic recall elections make those decisions even harder.
According to a recent poll, Governor Walker is leading all of his potential Democratic challengers in the recall election. A May 8 primary will determine whom he faces.
Let’s agree on one thing: While voters across the country are gearing up for a vitriolic presidential campaign season, voters in Wisconsin will remain focused on the gubernatorial recall election.
Eau Claire, Wis., April 27, 2012