91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Recall elections

Governor Rick Snyder has signed so many momentous bills in the last week that some which normally might have gotten headlines have been almost overlooked. One was yesterday.

This is a new law that makes it harder to recall state officials, meaning to remove them from office by a special election before their term is over. There’s bound to be a lot of grumbling that this is anti-democratic, that the lawmakers did this to protect themselves from being removed by outraged citizens. 

Well, I am sure that may have been a motivation for some. But in fact, making recalls harder is a good thing. Good for democracy and our state, and will make it easier for lawmakers to do their jobs.

Here’s why. We already have a system of recalls -- it’s called elections. Officials serve short terms. House members have to run every two years. State senators and most other state officials, including the governor, every four years. Only judges serve longer.

In order for representative democracy to work, elected officials sometimes must make unpopular decisions. Washington did, Lincoln did, the Roosevelt’s and Reagan did. State legislators, ditto.

But in recent years, any time Michigan lawmakers have done something some faction doesn’t like, it’s been common to start hollering “recall.”

Last year was sort of the year of the recall orgy. Between April and October, 47 state legislators were targeted for recall, as was the governor himself. Considerable time, energy, and money went into these efforts. 

Now, with the passage of right to work legislation, there are new calls for massive recalls. But those who would recall those whose votes they don’t like frequently miss one major point.

Virtually all recall attempts fail. Next year, it will have been 30 years since the most famous recalls in state history.

Two Michigan state senators were removed for supporting a temporary state income tax hike during a budget crisis, an event which led to the rise of John Engler.

But in all the years since, only one recall has been successful. Republican State Representative Paul Scott was removed in a close vote last year after he was targeted by teacher lobbying groups. But Scott had other problems, such as his getting a staff member pregnant, and in any event the recall was politically meaningless.

It didn’t change the balance of power, and after another expensive election, he was soon replaced with another Republican. The new law gives those who want to remove lawmakers less time to collect signatures -- 60 days rather than 90.

Recall language has to be clearer, and those whose terms last longer than two years can’t be recalled in their first or last year. Also, recalls won’t just be about removing a candidate. Successful recalls will be held as another election, with the targeted officeholder facing another candidate. 

There may be some legitimate reason, some time, to try to remove an officeholder before the next election rolls around. But most of the time, recall attempts have been an expensive distraction.

Lawmakers need a little space to try and do the right thing, even when that isn’t popular. As it is now, we are consumed by election mania every other year. Don’t you think that’s enough?