As Best I Can Recall

Last week the Wisconsin state assembly passed a measure that’s the first step toward amending the state constitution for recalls.  I don’t think anybody has to think very hard to figure out my opinion of the effort.  If you do here it is: It’s a dumb, petty, pointless effort put forth by cravens and cowards.  Buy me something tasty and I’ll tell you how I really feel.

Since last week was just a hair on the unreasonable side of busy, I saved the article to blog about it but didn’t get around to it.  This far behind the ball I’d normally just let it go.  Except.

Under current law, no grounds are needed to seek a recall.

This line, or one very like it, is cropping up in all the reporting about it, and it’s driving me nuts.  It’s one of those technically true things that come up in order to lie.  True, the current constitution doesn’t say anything about what constitutes valid grounds for a recall.  What it does say is this:

SECTION 12. [Recall of elective officers.] 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.

(1) The recall petition shall be signed by electors equalling at least twenty-five percent of the vote cast for the office of governor at the last preceding election, in the state, county or district which the incumbent represents.
(6) After one such petition and recall election, no further recall petition shall be filed against the same officer during the term for which he was elected. (7) This section shall be self-executing and mandatory. Laws may beenacted to facilitate its operation but no law shall be enacted to hamper, restrict or impair the right of recall.

Bolding and underlining mine, because this is where the technical truth, rhetorical lie dynamic comes into play.  There is nothing there about criminality, incompetence, ethics violations, insulting grandma, or whatever else somebody might consider valid grounds for a recall.  What it does have are two rather important restrictions on how a recall can be done and what it takes for it to be successful.  And these restrictions accomplish the function of specifying what constitutes grounds for a recall far more effectively than actually enumerating the valid critera.

Let’s take a look at the first bit I bolded, the part about having to wait a year to file a recall. This means several things.  The first is that nobody is likely to ever file a recall petition against a member of the Assembly.  They only have two year terms, so at best you get somebody out a few months early.  It’s not worth it.

The second is that you can’t immediately turn around and redo the election if a lot of people are suddenly unhappy when the results come out.  Say a third party split the vote on one side and all of a sudden a majority isn’t happy because they agree the guy who won is a bad idea.  Tough, wait a year, and while you’re at it, learn some electioneering.  You know what?  After a year, the squabbling side split by the third party is going to be squabbling again.  Don’t believe me?  I’m going to claim the long, long history of no recalls even over close elections as evidence to support this claim.  You could counter-argue that nobody was paying attention before.  I’ll rest my case on your counter-argument.

What this provision does is give the candidate time to actually serve in office, and protect them from punitive recalls that have more to do with the election than their performance.  It also annoys the hell out of me, because there’s nothing stopping a candidate from doing unquestionably unacceptable thing x on inauguration day and then getting away with it for a year.  On the other hand, there are other ways for dealing with anybody who does unacceptable thing x on inauguration day if leaving them in office for a year is going to be catastrophic.  It’s not like one person has the power to quash protest.  And even if that did happen, there’s protection in separation of powers.  Or, well, there’s a reason I love the whole Bill of Rights and not just the starting bit.  (No, you cannot quarter troops in my house.  I won’t let you!)

So there’s already protection against backlash, punitive recalling that isn’t based on things done while in office.  The second bit I highlighted is even more important.  In order to have a recall, you have to get a signature from a number of electors (that is, people eligible to vote) equal to 25% of the people in the relevant district who voted for governor.  That’s not just for gubernatorial recalls, that’s for any recall.  In other words, the constitutional provision creates a burden that is based on the biggest potential number of voters.  Executive branch elections get the highest voter turn out.  Most people only vote for president, with the other executive offices generally also enjoying privileged status.  They’re just sexier to voters, and always have been.  So if I want to recall my state senator, it doesn’t matter if me and my two crotchety neighbors up the street are the only ones who voted for him; if my entire district turned out to vote for governor, I need 25% of my entire district to help me overrule my two crotchety neighbors.

Now, I could file for a recall and start collecting signatures, but do you have any idea what the return on investment is for canvassing?  It’s crap.  We got a million signatures for the Walker recall, not because we went door to door or called a tons of people, but because if you were standing on a street corner with a clipboard and a “Sign here” sign, traffic would stop to come to you.  That.  Doesn’t.  Happen.  Especially not in the absence of something that really pisses off a ton of people.  I would suggest that any list of acceptable reasons for a recall that does not include something which can motivate people to that degree is a terminally flawed list.

The current design of the recall provision in the Wisconsin constitution is actually a really great piece of law.  It does exactly what I think any law should do.  It’s clear, specific, and designed so that it maximizes desired outcomes in a fashion both flexible and portable to changing conditions.  Standards for what unacceptable behavior by an elected official change.  By not citing them directly, but instead creating a burden that functionally requires a violation of those standards, the law is automatically self-updating.  It gets my highly desired seal of approval.

And even if this proposed amendment had been part of the constitution a year ago, I’d probably get my recall anyway.  Scott Walker likes making things easy for me just that much.

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