Wisconsin's Recall Law: To Assure the Consent of the Governed
“Why do we have a recall law?” the man asked me. Many citizens have asked about the history of Wisconsin’s recall laws and the process of a recall.
In the early twentieth century, it was the beliefs of the Progressive movement that drove the recall law. The people believed voters should have “a direct voice in the affairs of government. As a 1954 state publication wrote, “The best cure for the ills of democracy, it was said, is more democracy.”
Citizens ask why officials can be recalled for the dissatisfaction of voters. This is part of the tradition around our recall laws. As explained in a 1980 publication of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB):
“The principle underlying the recall of public officers has been defined as an effective speedy remedy to remove an official who is not giving satisfaction to the public and whom the electors do not want to remain in office, regardless of whether he is discharging his full duty to the best of his ability and as his conscience dictates.”
Often I am asked why someone should be recalled if they have not committed a crime. The LRB addresses this question, “The recall statutes do not contemplate a judicial inquiry into the truth of specific charges of misconduct, but are designed to afford relief from popular dissatisfaction with the official conduct of an officer.”
The recall of public officials began in Switzerland. Recalls were used during the Continental Congress when Pennsylvania delegates refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. A 1907 LRB document explains the principle of recall is not unlike that of the British system in which Parliament is dissolved, members go back to the people and a new Parliament is elected.
In Wisconsin, Governor Bob La Follette first suggested adoption of recall laws in his 1905 message to the Legislature. Every session after that, bills were introduced to recall city officials until a new law passed in 1911.
Also in 1911 a constitutional amendment to recall state officials was first introduced. It took until 1926 for people of Wisconsin to adopt the amendment to the state constitution. By this time ten other states took action to recall state officials. Today nineteen states have recall laws affecting state officials.
The first successful recall of a Governor happened in North Dakota in 1921. The second, and only other gubernatorial recall, resulted in the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Governor Gray Davis was recalled partly because citizens felt he had mismanaged events leading up to an energy crisis.
In Wisconsin, during the 65-year period between 1911 and 1977, there were only 8 recall elections. Six of these recalls happened in Wisconsin Rapids during the 1930s. All six recalls involved school board members- three who dismissed a superintendent and three for their part in dismissing teachers for engaging in union activity. History tells us about a rash of recalls in 1977 when five school board members and a judge was recalled. But nothing in history compares to the present time.
Wisconsin’s recall law requires valid signatures equal to 25% of the vote for governor in the last election be collected in a 60-day window. The state law provides time periods for signature verification, challenges, rebuttals and court reviews.
If sufficient signatures are validated to generate an election, the coming gubernatorial general election will be between the current governor and the candidate who wins the Democratic Primary. The Government Accountability Board will set the date for a primary election.
The general election will be held on the Tuesday of the 4th week following the primary. It is likely the general election will not be held until early summer. As the election approaches it is important citizens stay involved, informed and get the proper voter ID.
In the end, it is the people of Wisconsin who decide the results of any election. At a recent gathering, Senator Mark Miller reminded me of the power Wisconsin’s constitution gives the people. He said, “We govern with the consent of the governed. And they have the right to withdraw their consent."