(Editor’s note: The following commentary is the President’s Message in the Fall 2011 issue of Impact, the Mackinac Center’s quarterly newsletter.)
At least two campaigns to recall elected officials in Lansing are under way. Several high-profile recall elections recently concluded in Wisconsin. Average citizens don’t usually pay much attention to recalls, but lawmakers watch them like hawks. Citizens should jealously guard any power they have that so captures their representatives’ attention.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s positive fiscal and education reforms sparked two recall efforts in Michigan. One of them targets the governor himself and the other seeks to remove from office the chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc.
It appears likely that anti-Scott forces gathered enough signatures to force the Republican into a November recall election. If so, voters who last elected him by a 19-point margin will decide whether to remove him from office. If recalled, his seat will remain vacant until voters choose his successor in the next regular election.
Anti-Snyder forces recently failed to collect enough signatures to force his November recall election. They say they will keep trying, but appear to be too poorly funded to achieve the very difficult task of recalling a governor.
Democrats and unions infuriated by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bold fiscal and collective bargaining reforms launched recalls against six Republican state senators in a bid to wrest control of the upper chamber from the GOP. They fell short, recalling only the two Republicans who probably would have lost their next elections anyway. Republican allies also failed in their attempts to recall two Democrat senators who infamously fled the state as a parliamentary stall tactic.
Most of these recall attempts were motivated by politics, not scandal. Some have called that a misuse of recalls. The Grand Rapids Press editorial board wrote that recalls “… should be undertaken for grave reasons only — reasons such as corruption, negligence or dereliction of duty.”
But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of a recall’s purpose. Michigan’s Legislature has constitutional authority to impeach and remove lawmakers guilty of “corrupt conduct in office or for crimes or misdemeanors.” The people have constitutional authority to recall lawmakers for “reasons or grounds” that are expressly “political.”
Recall elections aren’t intended to allow removal of officials for certain reasons only. Recall elections are intended to allow the people themselves, not just the Legislature, to directly remove officials between elections.
Recall laws prevent chaos by requiring a high number of signatures to trigger an election and a strict process to approve ballot language. A few people who don’t like a lawmaker cannot force a recall, which is why recall elections are rare and successful recalls are rarer still. The last Michigan lawmakers recalled were two Democrat state senators in 1983.
Republicans now control all branches of state government. While some of them are targeted for recall, they should resist any temptation to make it harder for the people to recall lawmakers. At the same time, Michigan residents should be ever vigilant to guard this important check on government’s power over the people.
Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.