By John Jackson, Visiting Professor, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
About ten days ago I received a very official looking document at my home. The brochure was mailed out to all registered voters by Secretary of State Jesse White. It explained the “Proposed Amendment to Add Section 7 to Article III of the Illinois Constitution.”
Unless you have an unusually detailed knowledge of the Illinois Constitution, you are not likely to have recognized that Article III is the article on Suffrage and Elections. This proposal, which is backed by both Governor Pat Quinn and Senator Bill Brady, would allow Illinois voters to draw up a petition and demand the recall (or removal) of a Governor from office via special election. Actually, it is more complicated than that.
First a petition has to be circulated and signed by at least 100 voters in 25 different counties and a total of 15% of all votes cast in the last Governor’s race. There could be as many as three elections required, i.e. one to vote on the recall of the current governor, then a primary could be held if there were two or more candidates put up by each party, then a general election to determine who the new governor would be. I told you that it is complicated.
Eighteen states allow recall elections. Given the recent sorry history of governors in the Prairie State, this proposed amendment apparently has widespread appeal and may well pass.
A few people have asked my opinion on this issue. I will vote ‘No’ and here’s why: “Check California”.
White’s brochure provides a detailed account of what the amendment would do and it also provides a well developed summary of the arguments both in favor and opposed to the amendment. I want to add to the argument against recall.
The potential for recall may have some immediate and superficial appeal. After all, it would have been a real alternative for the people to use to get rid of Rod Blagojevich after his arrest by the feds on December 9, 2008. On the other hand, we did get rid of him through 2. His removal from office came only six weeks later via speedy action taken by both the Illinois House and Illinois Senate.
In a situation where the governor was so compromised that the General Assembly deemed it necessary to remove him from office, the impeachment alternative, while never used before in Illinois on a Governor, turned out to be quick and decisive. In addition, it was relatively inexpensive. It cost something to hold the hearings necessary to remove Governor Blagojevich from office, but not much.
By contrast, it will cost millions, perhaps tens of millions of dollars, to remove a governor by the recall route. Petition campaigns, and then the campaign in support of or against the sitting governor will cost a lot of money for both the proponents and the opponents. The State Board of Elections has estimated that just the state’s costs of holding the special elections could exceed $100 million. This is not an alternative where “the people rule.” It is a case where those with big money of their own, or with access to big money, especially big corporate or union donors, will rule.
The California case of Gray Davis being removed and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger is instructive. In October of 2003 a political tidal wave struck California and in one quick election they recalled Governor Davis, who was only ten months into his second term.
California is the champion of direct democracy, i.e. the use of recall, initiative, and referenda ballot measures. This grows out of the progressive tradition which is strong in the west and which was indeed intended to see to it that public opinion was taken into account and that grassroots democracy was vibrant. What has happened instead is the development of a whole industry in California devoted to ballot initiatives.
It takes at minimum eight to ten million dollars to fight for a ballot proposition or recall measure in California. This money usually comes from very large donors, not from “the common people.” In the Schwarzenegger case, the money was mostly provided by one very conservative and very rich Republican Congressman. This is a false promise of mass democracy.
Did the people get what they wanted in Schwarzenegger? Certainly they got a movie star actor for governor, which has proved to be important in California in the past. However, they kept the same budget crisis, the same gridlock in the legislature, and the same seemingly intractable social and infrastructure problems which had plagued California under Gray Davis.
Governor Schwarzenegger is now coming to the end of his time as governor and is not running again. There is a spirited race to replace him. Interestingly enough, his standing in the polls now is just about where Gray Davis’s standing was when California voters decided to recall him.
Our founding ideals in this country included the basic concept that once elected, a governor, a president, or a legislator has a predetermined amount of time to get the job done and then to stand for re-election. Supposedly this allows the officials to make the hard choices and to do what is best for the state or the nation in the long run. That part of the bargain often fails to work out, and the office holders often pander to whatever is popular in order to gain the best short term advantage necessary to get past the next election. Most demonstrate very little concern for the long term and for the big picture now. Just think how much more timid they will be if the specter of recall hangs heavily over their heads. Just the threat of a recall will cause government to be tied up in knots and hard decisions postponed.
We have a perfectly good device for removing undeserving public officials now. It is called the next election.
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