“What Recalls Tell Us About Regular Elections”

Joshua Spivak in Governing;

Most people, including elected officials, seem to believe that a recall held on a special election date is much more likely to result in removal. Their logic is clear: The recall proponents would have motivated voters, who are so angered by the actions of the elected official that they spent money, collected signatures and pushed through a recall vote. According to this theory, recall backers should have an easier time turning out their base, while the elected official has the burden of alerting their supporters to the fact that they are facing a vote on an unexpected date. In this view, the sitting official would better be bolstered by having a recall election take place concurrently with a regularly scheduled election.

I myself believed this theory. But the view is completely wrong.

Although both types of dates are likely to result in removal, officials are actually somewhat more likely to be kicked out when the election is held on a regularly scheduled election date. Apparently, the angry, motivated voters do not skew the results. In the end, the results from stand-alone recalls are roughly similar to ones that take place on a regular election date.

From 2011 to 2023, there were 1,187 recall elections that led to a vote in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Two governors, a lieutenant governor, 17 state legislators and a massive group of local officials such as mayors, councilmembers, county commissioners, district attorneys, school board members, and fire and park district commissioners were subject to a recall vote in that time. (Another 239 officials resigned in the face of recall attempts, which also increases the number of states involved to 33). Of those 1,187 recall elections, 729 resulted in an ouster, while 458 saw the incumbent survive the vote. This translates to a 61.4 percent removal rate.

How much difference does timing make? Forty percent of those contests — 475 to be precise — took place on a general or primary election date. Of those, 317 resulted in removal, which is a 67 percent ouster rate. Those held as special elections, by contrast, saw a 10 percent drop in success — 406 out of 712 officials were removed, which is an ouster rate of 57 percent.

The numbers don’t change that much when officials are targeted individually or find themselves on the ballot as a group within one jurisdiction. When a multi-official recall date was held as a special election, the voters removed all of the officials 60 percent of the time. When it was held on a general or primary election date, the removal rate was 73 percent. (Forty-six of the multi-recall elections saw a split verdict.)…

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