Maybe Michiganders are just more ornery than anywhere else.
That may be the only way to explain how the Great Lakes State has jumped back to the top of the list in the number of recall elections at all levels of government in 2018.
For the first time in three years, a state other than California led the way in recall efforts during the past calendar year, and it was Michigan with 65 such attempts, according to the online website Ballotpedia, published by the Lucy Burns Institute in Wisconsin. California, a far bigger state, was runner-up with 61, followed by Arizona with 27.
Across the country, there were 206 recall efforts during 2018, targeting 299 officials. Of the 123 officials who wound up in voters’ cross-hairs on the ballot, 75 were recalled while 45 survived. That’s a 63% “success” rate in purging elected officials by recall. Looking at those numbers by state population, Michigan ranked third among the 50 states, behind only Idaho and North Dakota — much smaller states with far fewer recalls.
In Michigan, some 30 units of government were impacted, mostly townships, city councils and school boards. No state officials were subject to recall in Michigan.
The most dramatic Michigan recalls occurred in Saugatuck Township on the shores of Lake Michigan, and in Williamston Community Schools, just east of Lansing. In Saugatuck, four township board members got the heave-ho, with only the supervisor escaping. The issue there was whether the incumbent officials should have fired their township manager for offensive behavior instead of simply “reprimanding” him. The ousted officials evidently got the axe from voters because they were “too soft” on the manager. In Williamston, four of seven school board members were targeted after the panel adopted two new policies related to gender identity and bathroom and locker room use. Three of the four survived the recall, but the board president lost to insurgent recall backer Karen Potter.
It appeared Michigan had permanently lost its title as “Recall Capital of the World” after 2012, when the 96th Michigan Legislature performed major surgery on the state’s recall statue during the famous “lame duck” session that also enacted “Right to Work” laws and re-instituted an emergency manager statute after voters had rejected the previous law in a statewide referendum. At the time, critics of Michigan’s century-old recall law argued that recalls had gotten out of control. A Citizens Research Council report found that 457 state and local elected officials in Michigan had faced recall elections between 2000 and 2011 — far more than any other state. The average number of elected officials facing recall elections each year between 2000-2011 was approximately 38 in Michigan; 18 in runner-up California; and 10 in third-place Arizona. But in 2013, under the new, “reformed” Michigan recall law (still in effect today) the number of officials facing recall had dropped to single digits.
Now that number has soared back up again. The question is, why?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states provide for recall of local elected officials (some sources place that number at 36 depending on the definition of “local’). Nineteen states, including Michigan, allow for recall of state officials. Michigan has as many as 18,000 public officials altogether vulnerable to recall.
Recall was first introduced to Michigan with the adoption of a 1913 amendment to the 1908 Michigan Constitution at a time when “initiative and referendum” fever was sweeping the nation. The 1913 amendment provided that all elected officials, except judges, would be subject to recall. To invoke recall, signatures equal to 25% of the total vote cast for governor in the most recent election in a particular jurisdiction were required.
Not all recalls are created equal. Michigan’s 1913 recall law was one of three “models” of recall that various other states have adopted across the nation. Under the pre-2013 Michigan Model, the public official targeted for recall was subject to a Yes or No vote. There was only one election, and if the Yes vote total exceeded the No votes, the public official was removed from office. The recalled official could not run to fill the recall-created vacancy. A second election had to be held later to fill the vacancy.
The other two “model” recall laws adopted by many states were the California Model and the Wisconsin Model. Michigan’s new (and current) recall law looks like a modified Wisconsin model, but with some key differences:
* The time to collect recall signatures was shortened from 90 days under the old law to only 60 days, the same time period as Wisconsin and six other states.
* Officials subject to recall must have an opponent instead of being subject to a Yes or No vote. The candidate with the highest number of votes in the recall election wins that office for the balance of the term.
* Recall petitions cannot be filed against officials with two-year terms in the first six months or the last six months of their terms. Officials with four-year terms cannot have recall petitions filed against them in the first year or last year of their terms in office. Elected officials are spared from facing more than one recall during their terms of office.
* Michigan’s current law at the state level automatically advances the official whose recall is being sought to the general election recall ballot. Opponents in Michigan are chosen in a separate primary election or, at the partisan local level, by a party’s executive committee. In Wisconsin, petitioners seeking the recall of a state level official are not required to state any reason for recall. Michigan law boasts a “reason’ requirement, although it has been watered down from the old law. Michigan holds recall elections only on three regularly-scheduled election dates each year. Wisconsin law mandates holding special recall elections.
Despite Michigan’s new law, our governor is still subject to the old “Yes” or “No” recall vote. The way the statute reads now, there can be no opponent facing off against the governor in a recall election. Why? Because the Michigan Constitution provides that, if the governor vacates the office, it is the lieutenant governor who shall then be governor. To provide otherwise would require a constitutional amendment, not a change in the recall law.