By Joshua Spivak —
Lima Mayor Susana Villarán is joining numerous elected officials throughout the world in facing an upcoming recall vote. The reasons for the attempted Villarán ouster mirror many other recalls – an electorally lethal mix of policy, politics and personal animosity. What may be interesting to Lima voters is just how common the use of the recall has become on the world stage.
Many may remember some very high profile recall attempts – Venezuela President Hugo Chavez survived one recall election in 2004, and action star Arnold Schwarzenegger rode a recall in 2003 to the California’s Governor’s office. But the use of the recall appears to have taken off this year.
In 2012, Romania’s president Traian Basescu survived a recall vote and we saw ousters in the Philippines and Germany. Nowhere has the recall had the impact as in the US. In 2012, 168 elected officials throughout the country faced a recall election. Most prominent among that group was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker who was only the third governor in US history to face a recall. The Walker recall was also noteworthy for the costs associated with the event. Campaign spending in the recall of Walker, his lieutenant governor and 15 other state legislators topped $137.5 million in less than two years.
Not only has there been increased use of the recall, we’ve also seen talk of new countries adopting the law. There’s also been discussion in the city of Moscow, and states and provinces in Canada, India and Australia.
What explains this boom for a device that has been around for centuries, but has been mostly ignored throughout that time?
Pundits like to cite voter anger, which certainly is necessary to get a recall on the ballot. But voters have been angry many times before. What makes the recall so popular now?
Part of the reason for the growth of the recall is that the device is tracking changes in politics worldwide. For some countries, voters have finally gained a say in electing their leaders, and they like to use it. In other countries that already boast a long democratic tradition, power is devolving from an elite group of leaders. The mass of voters have gained an increased role in the political process, frequently through such other direct democracy devices as the initiatives and ballot measures. These devices have allowed voters to decide for themselves the pressing issues of the day. The recall follows this line of thinking, by making elected officials more instantaneously accountable for their vote.
Consider the two basic theoretical models for elected government: One is called the trustee model, where an elected official is elected for his superior knowledge, wisdom, and experience and asked to vote or rule based on his own best judgment. The other is the delegate model, where the elected official is asked to represent the wishes of his constituency. Both of these models have their positives and negatives, but in recent years the delegate model has gain prominence. The recall serves as a thumb on the scale of the delegate model.
There are a couple of other reasons for the recall’s increased use. Technology has made it easier to get a recall moving than ever before. The internet, email and social media allow unconnected voters to be drawn into a fight over a politician’s alleged misdeeds. Smartphones, spreadsheets and demographic data can maximize signature-gathering efforts. Even basic items like printers and word processing programs have helped the cause for making a low-cost political campaign more accessible to grass roots voters.
Another is the recall’s high excellent success rate. Recalls are popular because they work – more than 50% of the officials to face a recall in the US last year lost their seats. This number is particularly stark when you factor in the fact that incumbents generally have a big advantage when they run, with a reelection rate somewhere in the 75-85 percent range. This potential for success has motivated many recalls – as it certainly has helped push the Lima recall forward.
The recall has resulted in backlash from elected officials – one of which is the possibility of adding a requirement that recalls can only be held for some criminal action, malfeasances or some incompetence. In the US, there is a similar divide, and it shows how important this change can be. Eighteen states currently allow recalls for state-level officeholders. Eleven of them allow what is called a “political recall” — meaning that people can recall an official for any reason whatsoever. The other seven states have what is called a “judicial recall” or “malfeasance” standard. In these states, the recall proponents have to show cause — such as incompetence, malfeasance, conviction or an ethical violation — before getting a recall on a ballot. Unsurprisingly, there are very few recalls in the “judicial recall” states. To give an example of the impact of this law, in 2011 there were 151 state and local recalls. Only one occurred in a state with a judicial recall or malfeasance standard.
The Mayor Villarán recall may have a variety of motivations behind it. Like in other recalls around the globe, the factors can be varied – policy issues play a large role, but so too do personal and political gain. What is most surprising may be just how ordinary a recall has become. When there is an option to re-vote on an official, many voters are happy to get the chance. Lima is no exception.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York, and blogs at http://recallelections.blogspot.com/