Oh, horrors, a recall election

The jobless rate in Michigan is above 11 percent (it's higher than that, but the official rate is 11.2 percent). The Legislature and the Snyder administration have taken budget actions that are leading to cuts in employment in the public sector. The private sector, meanwhile, is caught with the rest of the nation in a potential double-dip recession scenario.

And in Lansing, legislators are preoccupied ... about threats to their own jobs.

In particular, they are worried about recall elections; so worried, in fact, that discussion is mounting to restrict when such elections can be called. Even Gov. Rick Snyder, himself the target of a failed recall effort, is saying he wants the process changed.

But Lansing's reaction, in itself, is an argument for making recall elections easier, not more difficult.

Consider the "threat": After partisans from both flanks have expended time, money and energy to teach the other side the lesson of a lifetime, Michigan has a grand total of 1 recall election on the November ballot (against Rep. Paul Scott in Genesee County). That's one House district, out of 110 -- or less than 1 percent. And it's entirely possible that the Scott recall vote will fail, so what exactly is the threat to representative democracy presented by this process?

Recall elections are actually rare things in Michigan, due in no small part to the byzantine process to get to the ballot; a process full of legal and political cut-outs that can be exploited by those in power with access to money. My favorite part of this process is when citizens have to convince a panel of local politicians (who probably want to be state politicians at some point) that they have drafted the proper grounds for a recall petition.

Even more rare are recall elections that turn out a legislator. In fact, only two have suffered that fate in Michigan -- both nearly 30 years ago.

Those two results, however, are another excellent argument in favor of voters using recalls.

The recalls occurred in 1983 against two state senators who voted for a tax increase package pushed by Gov. Jim Blanchard to deal with a massive state budget crisis. And, dear readers, I can tell you those results still reverberate around the halls of the Capitol as if they had happened yesterday. No one wants to be the third legislator recalled due to a tax increase vote and serious political gyrations are undertaken to avoid any such exposure.

But isn't that what you want your lawmakers to be -- responsive?

In August, the polling firm EPIC MRA released a survey that found only 1/3 of voters were  happy with Snyder's job performance. A poll in September found more voters with an unfavorable view of Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature than with a favorable view. From the Lansing point of view, unhappy voters are just supposed to lump up until the next regularly scheduled election -- at which point they may not have much of a choice in candidates since Michigan also gerrymanders its legislative districts to make them as uncompetitive as possible for one party or the other.

To be clear, voters are part of the problem. Back in 2007 when the Legislature approved tax increases to close a budget gap, plenty of citizens were screaming bloody murder. Recall efforts were sporadic and futile, however, and when the 2008 general election came up, legislative incumbents pretty much carried the day. The voters could not hold their focus long enough to make representatives responsive to their desires.

The real avenue to reform in Lansing is through accountability. Elected leaders take ownership for decisions and voters have clear opportunities to affirm or reject those decisions. In trying to make the recall process more restricted (to only instances of criminal or unethical behavior), lawmakers really are seeking to insulate themselves even more from the public mood.

Is that what you voted for in 2010?

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Comments

Daniel Frohardt
Thu, 10/06/2011 - 10:05pm
I couldn't disagree more with the assessment that the Engler-engineered recalls of the 1980s are an argument in favor of recall elections. As noted, this permanently changed the psyches of our state's legislators, but this has been a disastrous change. Elections are fought over short-term issues. A sustainable society needs lawmakers who pay some attention to long term problems that are overshadowed in election campaigns. Global warming is a familiar example. There are numerous others. A significant effect of recall elections is to divert lawmaker's attention from thorny long-term issues. Members of the state house already spend too much time and energy campaigning without having to deal with these sideshows.