Only 18 states currently allow recalls for state-level officeholders, and there's a deep divide among those states on how recalls can be used. Eleven of them allow what is called a "political recall" -- meaning that people can recall an official for any reason whatsoever (think California Governor Gray Davis or Walker). The other seven states have what is called a "judicial recall" or "malfeasance" standard. In these states, the recall proponents have to show cause -- such as incompetence, malfeasance, conviction or an ethical violation -- before getting a recall on a ballot. Unsurprisingly, there are very few recalls in the "judicial recall" states. Only one of the 151 state and local recalls that took place last year occurred in one of those states.
Though few of the attempts have succeeded, in the 11 states that permit political recalls, there have been plenty of efforts to recall state governors. Currently, the governors of both Michigan and Louisiana face recall petitions, and within the last year, there was discussion by among New Jersey Democrats about trying to recall Governor Chris Christie.
Outside of Wisconsin, few of these recall efforts have gotten much press, and for good reason -- it is very difficult to get a recall against a state-level official on the ballot, thanks to an array of legal and practical hurdles.
The biggest hurdle is the cost of gathering signatures. Wisconsin's unions provided the big bank account for the Walker recall, and in 2003, Davis's recall was underwritten by Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who made a fortune in car alarms. Even some of the lesser known recalls need a deep pocket to get off the ground -- the Miami-Dade mayor was tossed out of office last year thanks to a recall backed by the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
But the expense of backing a successful recall petition -- that is, one that gets a recall on a ballot, regardless of the final outcome of the vote -- may now be coming down, as technology has made it easier to get a recall moving then ever before. The Internet, email and social media allow unconnected voters to be drawn into a fight over a politician's alleged misdeeds. Smartphones, spreadsheets and demographic data can maximize signature-gathering efforts. Even basic items like printers and word processing programs have made it simpler and cheaper to make high-quality fliers and other basic documents over the past several decades.
The result has been that recalls are occurring more frequently. Of the 36 state legislative recalls that have gotten on the ballot in U.S. history, 29 have taken place since 1981. Further bolstering the recalls cause is that they work. Incumbents generally have a big advantage when they run, with a reelection rate somewhere in the 75-85 percent range. Recall efforts cut incumbents down a notch. Of the 151 state and local recall efforts that made ballots last year, 85 resulted in removal of the targeted elected official -- in nine cases, the official even resigned before the vote. Recalls appear to succeed more than they fail.