Question 1): The website Ballotpedia has tracked 136 recall efforts across the nation against 131 state lawmakers from 1913 to 2022. During that time, 39 recalls made the ballot and 22 legislators in various states were successfully recalled.
Michigan led the way with 30 state legislative recall efforts from 1913 to 2022. Of those 30 recall efforts, three were successful — against state Senators Phil Mastin of Pontiac and David Serotkin of Mt.Clemens in 1983, and against state Rep. Paul Scott of Grand Blanc in 2011. Wisconsin followed with 25 state legislative recall efforts. six of which were successful.
Michigan incorporated all the tools of the progressive movement of the early 20th Century, started in California by Dr. John Haynes and Governor/U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson: Michigan incorporated into its 1908 Constitution what is called the Initiative (both constitutional and statutory), the Referendum, and the Recall. These provisions were maintained in the current Michigan Constitution approved by the state’s voters in 1963. Recall in Michigan for the first 75 years was limited to local governmental officials, particularly at the school board, township, and city levels.
That was then, this is now. Today the only question is: WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF WITH RECALL ELECTIONS of STATE legislators that, if successful, might end Michigan Democrats’ first “Trifecta” of power in the state capitol since 1983?
Answer 1) No. If that’s too blunt, a more nuanced answer would be “Barring unforeseen developments, almost certainly not.” But why not?
For starters, none of these efforts has even gotten to first base, and there are plenty more obstacles ahead (see below). The Board of State Canvassers (BOSC) last week deadlocked, 2-2, on approving petition language against six Democrats and Rep. Donni STEELE (R-Lake Orion) because attorney Mark BREWER , a former state Democratic Party chairman, convinced the board that, since the petition language mentioned only the lawmakers’ vote on specific bill numbers without defining the measures’ content, potential signers didn’t have enough information to decide whether or not to ink their John Hancocks.
The board DID approve allowing organizers to begin collecting signatures to recall Rep. Cam CAVITT (R-Cheboygan), but efforts to recall the other seven state representatives from office will need to wait.
So what DID happen back in 1983, anyway?
The 1982 general election had produced for Democrats a long-sought TRIFECTA of Democratic control for the first time since 1937-38. Democrat James Blanchard became the first Democrat in two decades to win the governorship. Farther down the ballot, the 1982 election resulted in a narrow 20D/18 R state Senate and a state House that was 63 D/47 R.
Governor Blanchard asked the Legislature at the beginning of the 1983 legislative session to enact a 38% income tax increase to resolve the state’s budget crisis, which later passed that session on a near party-line vote.
Prior to 1983, no Michigan state legislator had ever been subject to a recall election. That all ended in 1983 when recall petition drives were launched against two Democratic state senators: Phil Mastin and David Serotkin. Both senators voted for the income tax hike. Recall elections under the Michigan Election Law in 1983 were held as special elections. The Mastin recall election preceded the Serotkin recall by a week in late November, 1983. The question on the ballot in Mastin’s district was: “Shall Philip Mastin be recalled from the office of state senator? Yes___ No___.” It received nearly twice as many Yes votes as No votes and after the election results were certified, Mastin was removed from office. Serotkin suffered the same fate, by an even bigger margin. Special elections were held on January 31, 1984, to fill the two recall-created vacancies. Rudy Nichols replaced Donald Bishop, the former incumbent who had lost to Mastin in 1982, as the GOP nominee. Nichols torched his Democratic opponent by a huge margin and thereby replaced Mastin. Republican Kirby Holmes, who had lost to Serotkin in 1982, ran again in the adjacent 9th district and easily defeated his Democratic opponent to fill the unexpired term.
So the Democratic Trifecta had lasted only 13 months. Suddenly, Republican John Engler was no longer the Senate minority leader; he was now the majority leader of a 20 R/18 D state Senate. Michigan would later experience four Republican trifectas of their own during the Engler-Snyder years: briefly in 1994, and then in 1995-1996; 1999-2002; and 2011-2018. Republicans held on to their Senate majority for nearly 38 years.
In 2011, another Michigan legislator was successfully recalled — state Representative Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc), chairman of the House Education Committee, which reported out amendments to the Michigan Employment Relations Act and the Teacher Tenure Act. Both bills were enacted. The legislation was strongly opposed by the Michigan Education Association (the teachers’ union), which led the Scott recall petition drive and recall campaign. The election that followed to replace Scott had a different outcome than the ones in early 1984. The seat did not “flip” — Republican Joe Graves of Argentine Twp in southern Genesee County, won it easily — and the result meant that the recall had no impact on which party controlled the House (where the GOP had a hefty majority, anyway).
Not surprisingly, given the slim partisan margins in 2023 in both the House (56-54) and Senate (20-18) following the 2022 elections; Republicans see recall as their pathway back to power. In the state House, a pickup of just one Republican seat resulting from a recall election could result in a return of shared power (55-55) last witnessed in the Hillegonds-Hertel (C0-Speakers) era of 1993-1994.
Elections next November 7 in the cities of Warren and Westland have Democratic state representatives running for mayor. If elected, those lawmakers will resign from the state House to assume their mayoral duties. Republicans could have a 54-54 tie in the state House before special elections in those solidly Democrat districts are held to fill the vacancies caused by those resignations. Success in more than one recall could give Republicans absolute control in the state House.
Reasons for recall have already been filed with the Board of State Canvassers (BOSC) against six Democratic House members and two Republicans, although so far the BOSC isn’t buying the language on most of the petitions.
Recalls can begin to be initiated in 2024 against senators elected in 2022. Republicans need two, not one, successful recalls to take over majority control in the Senate. A 19-19 tie gives Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, a Democrat, a tie-breaking vote.
Here’s why Recall Elections in Michigan in 2023 are so much less likely to happen than they were in 1983 or 2011. Recalls today are governed by a drastically different recall law than at any time in the past.
In 2012, following the defeat of two labor-backed constitutional amendment proposals on collective bargaining, Governor Rick Snyder, who previously said a Right to Work Law was not his priority, changed course. Snyder had been offended that Big Labor had proceeded with a petition drive to place a question guaranteeing collective bargaining on the statewide ballot, ignoring Snyder’s assurances that he would have vetoed any Right to Work bill passed by the Legislature. Snyder gave Republican legislative leaders Randy Richardville and Jase Bolger a green light to enact Right to Work during the 2012 lame duck session, assuring them he would not veto such legislation.
For Republicans in 2012, recall of legislators voting for Right to Work carried the same risk as Democratic senators had when they voted in 1983 for a 38% income tax hike. They could lose majority control over a legislative chamber as a result of recall elections. The recall law needed to be changed.
Two things were bad about Michigan’s pre-2012 recall law. The public official was placed on the ballot alone, with the equivalent of a “scarlet letter” hung around his or her neck. The voter was given no alternative opponent with whom to compare to the incumbent. Recall became a public humiliation rather than a political contest (in 1983, then-Gov. Blanchard opined that “Once the Mastin and Serotkin recalls were placed on the ballot, they were toast”). Second, requiring a second election to fill the recall-created vacancy left a district or community without representation for too long.
The lame duck legislature in 2012 adopted a different recall model, engineered at least in part by Bob LaBrant, then legal counsel to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The new, amended recall law was modeled on Wisconsin’s. It was probably no coincidence that LaBrant himself hailed from Wisconsin before relocating to Michigan in 1977. Here’s what the new law, signed by Snyder, said, and still says:
1. Shorten the time to collect recall signatures from 90 days to 60 days, same as Wisconsin and six other states. Michigan’s Constitution requires recall signatures be equal to 25% of the total vote cast for governor in the last election in that district or jurisdiction.
2. Officials subject to recall will have an opponent instead of being subject to a simple Yes or No vote. The candidate with the most votes wins the office for the balance of the term.
3. At the state legislative level, incumbents are automatically placed on the general election ballot. However, they may withdraw from the ballot, and if they do their replacement would be selected in a partisan primary. Independent candidates may petition for ballot placement.
4. Recall petitions cannot be filed against a state representative with a two-year term in the first six months or last six months of his or her term. State senators with a four-year term cannot have recall petitions filed in the first year or last year of their term.
5. Recall primaries and general elections on regular election dates are provided for each year in February, May, August, and November.
6. For state legislators, the Board of State Canvassers (BOSC) is required to determine whether the reason(s) for recall are stated both “factually and clearly.” Deadlock at the BOSC means the issue is taken to the Michigan Court of Appeals. Except for local officials, Wisconsin does not require reasons for recall to be printed on petitions. Ignored in Michigan is the question of the constitutionality of factual and clarity hearings — they appear to be contrary to the plain language of Article II, Section 8 of the Michigan Constitution, which states “that the sufficiency of any statement of reasons or grounds for recall shall be a political rather than a judicial question.”
7. The Michigan Constitution provides that, if there is a vacancy in the office of Governor, the Lt. Governor automatically becomes Governor for the balance of the term. If recall is sought against an incumbent Michigan governor, unlike Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker faced a recall in 2012, there is no opponent for the incumbent governor to face off against on the ballot. The question on the Michigan statewide ballot would be: “Shall (name of governor) be recalled from the office of governor? Yes___ No___.”
No recall elections for state senators occurred in 2013 halfway through their term of office. Nor were there any recalls of state representatives in 2013-2014. Legislators voting to enact Right-to Work in 2012 did not face any recall attempts.
The six recall petitions filed last month against Democratic state representatives cite reasons relating to one or more of the recently passed ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Safe Storage’ gun laws or the ‘Hate Crimes’ law. One Republican (Cavitt) had the recall filing against him cite that he voted for Detroit Democrat Joe Tate to be Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. Cavitt was no outlier. He was part of a large majority — the vote for Speaker Tate was 102-8. It is not unusual for a member of the minority party to show collegiality and respect to the new Speaker in a largely symbolic roll call vote. The other Republican representative (Donni Steele) had her recall filing cite her vote for a safe storage gun law, a vote few of her constituents oppose in light of the Oxford High School shooting in 2021.
Recall elections are treated by the Bureau of Elections as separate from the regular election cycle (November 9, 2022-November 5, 2024). For example, a state representative subject to recall can accept up to $1,225 from an individual and 10 times that amount from an independent committee (PAC) for that recall election cycle. They can also accept another $1,225 from that individual and 10 times that amount from an independent committee (PAC) for the regular election cycle. In other words, the recall efforts against these eight lawmakers can actually backfire against the petitioners in that it allows the lawmakers to raise and spend far more campaign cash than they would be able to if they were NOT subject to recall. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used this provision of the law to great advantage when she was subject to a clumsy (and unsuccessful) recall effort against her during her 2022 run for re-election.
Here’s a final reason the current recall efforts are unlikely to be successful if they should ever reach the ballot, which is unlikely to begin with — the legislators targeted all won in not particularly close contests last fall. The most obvious example would be Cavitt of Cheboygan, who swamped his Democratic opponent, 65%-35% in November, 2022. Under the new law, Cavitt will automatically be on the ballot as the Republican incumbent (without having to qualify in a primary) against whomever the Democrats nominate. He would easily win again. His district is even more Republican than Paul Scott’s. If the architects of the attempted Cavitt recall hope to unseat him they will have to wait for the August, 2024, Republican primary to do it. Last year, Cavitt won the Republican primary by 2,185 votes over his closest competitor, although the votes for his two opponents combined exceeded Cavitt’s.
The other Republican, Steele, won her general election by nearly a thousand votes, 51.2%-48.8%. The six Democrats also won handily, although a couple of the contests were relatively close: Noah Arbit (D-W. Bloomfield) won by some 6,500 votes (56.6%-43.4%); Jaime Churches (D-Wyandotte) won by 660 votes (50.8%-49.2%); Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) won by 765 votes (49.8%-48.5%); Jennifer Conlin (D-Ann Arbor) won by 3,754 votes (53.1%-45.8%); Sharon MacDowell (D-Troy) won by about 6,800 votes (57.9%-42.1%) and Reggie Miller (D-Belleville) won by 1,815 votes (52.3%-47.7%).
Most of these are not the marginal districts represented by Mastin and Serotkin back in 1983. ‘Nuf said.