Wisconsin considering record number of recalls, time to reconsider direct democracy?

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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For Wisconsin voters on both sides of the aisle, it’s senatorial hunting season, and thanks to the organizing power of social media, it may be like shooting fish in a barrel. Embroiled in the state’s budget controversy, all 16 senators vulnerable to the state’s recall laws have had petitions launched against them.

The move — the sheer number of state lawmakers facing potential recalls — is unprecedented. And not just in Wisconsin, but in the other states that allow similar efforts.

A week after the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a online ad campaign against Wisconsin Republicans, it proudly announced that it had raised $500,000 against both Gov. Scott Walker and the senators vulnerable to recall. Meanwhile, there are dozens of Facebook pages dedicated to recalling every possible Wisconsin senator. The efforts are all related to the budget debate launched by Republicans who, to the disbelief of many Wisconsinites, are keeping their campaign promises.

As social media makes it easier to mobilize support and incite action, is it time states reconsider the once-infrequent use of recalls and other forms of direct democracy?

Along with Wisconsin, 17 other states allow for the recall of its officials. Nearly all of those states were once western territories that came into the union around the first Progressive Movement. Recall attempts are mostly reserved for local lawmakers and each state has its own specific requirements, though most of them list some sort of “serious malfeasance” or “misconduct” as a justifiable reason. Montana and Virginia, ensuring that they’ve covered all their bases, include the broad, (if slightly redundant) definition of lawmaker “incompetence.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures describe recalling state legislators as “unusual.” The action is also so infrequent and — at least in the past — difficult, that scholars from almost all 18 states who spoke to The Daily Caller had trouble even remembering the last time it happened.

“Yeah, I can’t think of anything,” said a California expert. For a Michigan professor, it was “further back than I can remember.”

“I can’t think of a single incident in which we’ve recalled a state legislature,” said one Georgia scholar.

“That’s a good question,” said scholar, Bob Mann, whose home state, Louisiana, might frequently elect officials already under criminal indictment but at least voters are committed to their decisions.

Gray Davis aside, initiative-crazed voter-mania in California — famous (or infamous) for its exercises in direct democracy —  has only seen 4 recalls on their ballots.

“Social media has definitely made it easier to mobilize groups of supporters or opponents for any government action,” said Rory Cooper, communications director for the Heritage Foundation. For plutocratic enthusiasts, unfortunately, he called this “a good thing.”

“It doesn’t mean mobilization wasn’t happening before social media,” he said. “It just means it happens faster.”

While social media does help enliven the recall efforts, University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said that’s no reason to change the laws. While communication tools may help people become more aware of hot-button issues or get that collective knee to jerk, it still doesn’t replace real-world efforts.

“I think social media do help recall efforts, but they do not allow you to collect signatures online,” said Burden. “You have to engage in the old fashioned shoe leather, go to shopping centers, go door-to-door to collect the signatures that are valid.”

Those lusting for a recall still have to garner at least 11,000 district voters (for Democrat Spencer Coggs) to a little more than 20,000 (Republican Mary Lazich) all in the span of 60 days. In Wisconsin, the number of required signatures is 25 percent of district voters from the previous gubernatorial election.

Apart from the on-the-ground effort needed, Burden also noted that many of California’s past recall and ballot initiatives were funded by small groups of people who also happen to pay people to collect signatures.

“At least through social media, you think ‘these are people who are really committed to the cause, and not just doing it because it’s easy to send out of their wealth and make it happen,’” said Burden. “It’s sort of loading the gun. It’s potentially making it easier to get those signatures [but] that’s no small task.”

The scholars who spoke to TheDC all seem to agree: recalls are an infrequent event and any tool — including social media — that not only spins the wheel of democracy faster but greatly encourages participation, is a positive.

“I would say it’s always a good idea to have more accountability in the system,” said Cooper. “Legislators should always know that they’re beholden to the will of the people that they represent.”

So recalls are good, for now ….

“I think in a few years, if you start seeing them more and more as the only answer of an opposition then you could debate the issue,” said Cooper, who tried to continue with “but right now …” before being cut off because TheDC’s whole argument about limiting direct democracy was falling apart.

Whatever the results of this current effort, recalling the state’s own recalling ability might not come soon enough for Gov. Walker. There’s already several Facebook pages laying the ground work for a Walker recall, whose position is safe for at least nine more months. That’s the easy part though, Walker haters will still need to collect about 500,000 signatures.

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