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How recall elections work in Michigan: What happens if Gov. Rick Snyder is recalled?

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

There is an effort under way to recall Gov. Rick Snyder. Metro Detroit pastor David Bullock is leading the charge on one of the two petitions that are circulating around the state. Recalling a governor is no easy task and thanks to recent legislation, it is even more difficult.

Bullock will need to gather more than 790,000 valid signatures in 60 days. If they are successful with the effort, there is a great deal of confusion as to what the next steps would be.

Christopher Thomas, the Michigan Director of Elections, joined Stateside to clear up some of it up.

For the most part, recalls are more common at the local level. One might hear of one for a local school board seat, or maybe a city elected official. Recalls at the state level are relatively rare, but when compared to the rest of the nation, Michigan’s 24 attempts are more than any other state (Wisconsin is second with 18). However, only three of those Michigan campaigns were successful.  

A pair of senators, David Serotkin, D-Mt. Clemens, and Phil Mastin, D-Pontiac, were recalled in 1983, with the most recent being when State Representative Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc, was removed from office in 2011.

The number of signatures required to recall the governor, compared to a state senator or representative, is much higher. In 2011, when Scott was recalled, 12,200 signatures were enough to oust him. By comparison, in order to recall the governor, 789,133 are required.

The governor [recall election] is the older way, the way that it was always done before, which means that there's a yes-no question [on the ballot]

Those standards were made even more strict in 2012 after the controversial passing of Michigan’s so-called "right-to-work" law. As the folks at It’s Just Politics described it, it was a “sort of self-defense mechanism for Republicans who were worried about a backlash to the quick passage of the controversial legislation.”

Prior to those changes, you had 90 days to collect signatures. Now, current law requires Bullock to gather them in 60 days, which is a little more than 13,000 signatures per day if you don’t have a calculator handy.

“90 days would have been a difficult hill to climb,” said Thomas. “60 days makes it that much harder.”
It will take a considerable effort, but if they are able to pull it off, what happens next? The procedure is much different for governors than it is for legislators.

“The governor is the older way, the way that it was always done before, which means that there’s a yes-no question. It’s like a ballot question.” said Thomas. “The recall language would be up to 200 words. The governor would be able to put 200 words of rebuttal on the ballot itself and then voters would vote yes-no. For all other office holders, it’s no longer that way. It is an actual election. So the recall petition itself would trigger a new election.”

So for recalls other than the governor, the office holder who is being recalled would automatically be nominated and the opposing party would have a primary to have a candidate to run against them.

But getting back to the governor’s situation, according to Thomas, the law states that recall elections can only take place during a May or an August election. In order to be on the August ballot this summer, the petitions and signatures would have to be submitted by April 29, a little over a month from the beginning of the campaign. With August likely an impossibility, the soonest they would be able to put a Snyder recall to a vote would be May of 2017, as long as they submit petitions by Sept. 3.

According to Thomas, if Gov. Snyder is recalled, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley would take over for the remainder of the term.

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the recall process and why it is currently impossible to recall a lieutenant governor in Michigan. 

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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