A recall election allows voters to oust an elected official, by means of a direct vote,while that official is still in the middle of their term. Recall elections are relatively rare and usually take place after the official does something which their opponents believe to be illegal or immoral.
The laws on recalls vary from state to state. In all but eleven states, some form of recall is allowed. In some states, recalls are allowed for all elected officials. In most states, though, there are strict rules about which officials can be subject to a recall. Many states also have rules about how long officials must serve before they can be recalled.
Federal law does not have any provision for recalling federally-elected officials, although some people have argued that voters have the right to recall members of Congress. The Supreme Court has never ruled on that issue, although the court has ruled that states cannot impose qualifications on members of Congress.
Analysts generally describe the recall as a populist initiative, an attempt to ensure that elected officials remain accountable to their constituents. The recall system dates back to colonial times; the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed for officials to be recalled. After independence, 11 states passed laws allowing for recalls of state officials. At the time, state legislatures, rather than voters, carried out the recall.
In modern times, voters have mainly used recall elections against local government officials, like mayors and judges. However, governors have also been recalled. In 1921, North Dakota voters used a recall election to oust the state’s governor; the same thing happened in California in 2003.
One of the most dramatic recall elections in recent history happened in Wisconsin, in 2012. The states Democrats and Republicans were locked in a battle over the rights of unions. The fight, which attracted national attention, saw Democratic politicians physically flee the state to avoid having to vote on a bill that would have restricted the right to collective bargaining. With so many lawmakers absent, it was impossible to vote on the measure.
Finally, the Republican leadership amended the bill to make a vote possible, and governor Scott Walker signed it into law. In response, Democrats petitioned to recall Walker. Walker ultimately survived the recall vote, defeating both the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett,and independent candidate Hariprasad Trivedi.
Some pundits believe that recalls are becoming more common in recent years. In August 2019, FiveThirtyEight reported that there were five governors being targeted for recall around the country. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, may be the most high profile case. As of early 2020, Newsom was facing two separate recall efforts, although it was not clear whether either effort would succeed.
Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, Gov. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled during a dispute about state-owned industries, and in 2003, Gov. Gray Davis of California was recalled over the state budget.