Governments rarely receive praise for inaction – but that is precisely the right move on recall.
In today’s Queen’s Speech there was no reference to the pledge to legislate for recall. This is a system familiar in America, where citizens can petition to boot out naughty politicians between elections – or at least that’s how the theory goes.
The recall myth tells that it empowers the public. In reality it is a partisan tool wielded by powerful interest groups – to promote sore losers.
Recall is not the great leveller. It would give moneyed elites an even greater grip on our politics. No one wants to see the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Unite spending millions chasing signatures on their latest recall petition.
Let’s make sure our Members of Parliament are properly subject to the laws of the land. Let’s make sure MPs found guilty of criminal offenses trigger automatic by-elections. But let’s pass on recall.
It has polluted American politics. And it’s time its British proponents looked long and hard at the evidence. The Government have passed on recall for now, but any attempts to introduce it via the back door must be strongly resisted.
Four good reasons to oppose recall
1) It’s a partisan tool
Recall has become a conventional partisan campaign tool at every level of government in the US – which has allowed forces on the left and right the chance to re-run political battles after Election Day.
The 2012 Recall initiative against Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker was a straight rerun of the 2010 gubernatorial election – and proved the most expensive contest in the state’s history. According to the advocacy group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, candidates and outside groups spent more than $80 million in the governor’s recall race. This compares to $37.4 million spent on the 2010 gubernatorial election
According to USA Today, $30 million of Walker’s donations came from outside the state with Democratic opponent Tom Barrett receiving $20 million from labour unions.
Tit for tat recall bids in the Wisconsin State Senate in 2011 saw Democratic and Republican opponents attempt to tip the chamber’s political balance in midterm.
Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee commented: “Wisconsin has become in some ways a microcosm of the partisan wars that have been raging nationally.”
2) It rewards Big Money
Recall rewards established groups who are organised enough – and well resourced enough – to deliver petitions.
US academic Dr Elizabeth Garret has expressed her concern over the role of money in recall contests – following the successful recall of California Democratic Governor Gray Davis. She notes that “a group seeking ballot qualification can be certain of success if it is willing to pay enough”.
Many US recall drives rely on paid ‘circulators’ to generate signatures. Garret observes that a “sophisticated initiative industry” has grown up in California, including “companies which “offer clients a money back guarantee if they don’t produce enough valid signatures.” In 1999 these companies received an average of $1.50 per signature.
3) It’s expensive
The high costs of recall contests have led to unintended consequences.
In 1993 five members of the city council of Covina, Los Angeles County, were recalled because a 6% utility tax. As a result of the revenue being lost from the utility tax the library and fire station came under threat of closure and 42 city employees faced redundancy. The councillors who were elected as replacements then introduced an 8.25% tax.
4) It’s ineffective
In almost all cases US recall isn’t based on any allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
Johnstown, Colorado Mayor Mark Romanowski survived a recall election in 2011 that was prompted, in part, by residents’ opposition to a plan to switch from diagonal to parallel parking spaces. Ogden, Kansas, Mayor Jimmy Bonds lost a recall election in 2010 after firing two lifeguards. Opponents said he overstepped his bounds.
American states have varying signature thresholds to initiate recall at different levels. The problem is a higher bar rewards money; a lower bar opens the door to frivolous bids.