The State of Michigan was one of the first states (Oregon the other) to allow for the recall of state elected officials (except judges). The 1908 Michigan Constitution (Article III, Section 8 ) provided the Michigan electorate with this tool of direct democracy; a power established during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century and carried forward into the 1963 Michigan Constitution (Article II, Section 8). Recall allows citizens the power to remove an elected official before the end of that official’s term. While this power has been available for over a century, actual recall elections over this period have been relatively rare. On Tuesday, November 8, State Representative Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc) faces a recall election in House District 51.
Michigan is one of 19 states that allow for the recall of state officials (historically, states have limited this power to removing only local officials from elected office (36 states, including Michigan, provide for this)). Michigan’s constitutional language clearly lays out the political nature of recall, “The sufficiency of any statement or reasons or grounds . . . shall be a political rather than a judicial question.” This means that officials can be removed for virtually any reason; a relatively low threshold compared to other states. In eight other states, justification to recall a state official must be based on specific grounds (malfeasance, felony conviction, misuse of public funds, etc.).
The process for recalling a state official is rather involved and includes local and state election officials as well as various deadlines. While the specifics are spelled out in the Michigan Election Law, generally speaking, the process begins with local election officials. Before a single signature is collected, the County Election Commission must determine whether each reason for recall presented to a voter is clear. The Commission does not have the authority to opine on the reasons themselves, only the clarity. If this body finds a clear reason(s), petitions are circulated and signatures are collected. Signatures are filed with Secretary of State to determine their validity and whether enough valid signatures have been turned in; however, challenges are allowed. If enough valid signatures have been submitted, recall ballots are prepared containing the reason for recall. Those subject to recall may include on the ballot a 200-word “justification of conduct in office” as an explanation. Finally, a vote is taken, which is what Representative Paul Scott faces on Tuesday.
The seriousness of recall is reflected in the fact that the signature threshold in most states is higher than that of citizen-initiated laws or referenda, when these tools are available to citizens to influence their government. The Michigan Constitution requires at least 25 percent of the total number cast for governor in the last election in the electoral district of the officer sought to be recalled. For citizen-led initiatives, the threshold is eight percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election, while for referenda the signature requirement is five percent of those voting the last gubernatorial election.
Although historically rare in Michigan, recall elections for state officials and the prospect of such elections have been more frequent in the last four years. In November 2008, Representative Andy Dillon (D-Redford) survived a recall election for his 17th House District seat. And more recently, it has been estimated that 30 percent of the 147 state lawmakers have faced some level of recall campaign since January. The only successful recalls in Michigan occurred in 1983 when two state senators were recalled.
Recent events raise the question of why recall campaigns of state officials, in any stage, are more frequent. Some observers suggest that Michigan’s non-specific (i.e. political) justification for recall is to blame for the heighten activity. Limiting the reasons, as other states do, certainly would constrain the valid reasons that people could pursue to seek the premature ouster of elected officials from office. Similarly, raising the signature threshold might deter some recall activity, but Michigan already has a relatively high signature requirement and there is no guarantee that a well-financed pro-recall campaign could not overcome a high signature threshold. Other observers have said that hyper-partisan politics are to blame, especially given the very difficult financial decisions that state lawmakers face with the budget and taxes. Given the cloudy forecast for improving budgets, difficult financial decisions are likely to be the norm rather than the exception for the foreseeable future.
Whatever the underlying reasons for the increased activity of late, current events suggest that policymakers and Michigan citizens should examine the foundations and mechanics of the constitutional power to recall state officials to determine whether this is what the framers of the 1908 Michigan Constitution had in mind when they granted the power to Michigan citizens over 100 years ago.