June 20, 2024

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Recall elections: Threat or defense for democracy?

15 min read
"Claiming that recalls are an illegitimate attack on democracy is a popular defensive tactic for officials targeted by a recall,” writes Berkeley Law's Joshua Spivak. “But the recall’s creators would see that argument as perverse: Rather than undermining democracy, the recall was designed to be its savior.”

Eugene recalled a city councilor for the first time in history, and a union local led an attempt to recall a popular state legislator. Is this an abuse of the process? City Club of Eugene invited the man who wrote the book on recalls. From Berkeley Law School, Joshua Spivak:

Joshua Spivak: I guess I should start by giving some background to recalls. Recalls are not new to America. They, in some fashion, existed since 1631. They were in the Virginia Plan, which was in some ways the first draft of the U.S. Constitution. They were voted down at the constitutional convention and recalls disappeared, effectively, for 100 years, and then came back in America, really, with Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive era.

[00:00:49] Los Angeles adopted in 1903. Then Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to adopt it for all officials in 1908. 1910-1911, that’s when California adopted it. At this point, 20 states have recall elections throughout the country that allow it for some or all state level officials. And again, this is not so clear, but it seems 40-41 have some version of a recall for local officials. The majority of states have had a recall since I’ve been keeping specific statistical track in 2011.

[00:01:31] So recalls are a regular feature of American government. What’s somewhat surprising, perhaps, is that they are generally not a partisan election. They are usually very policy-based. This may not be a surprise because most jurisdictions, whether it’s a state or a city or a district, are usually one-party-dominated or another, so recalls don’t happen necessarily for partisan reasons. There are plenty of them that have, but most of them are not that. Recalls are also not really about corruption. It is not really why recalls were adopted.

[00:02:10] And in general, this is a divide in the law. In some states, there are what we call a malfeasance or judicial recall standard where you do need to show a specific statutorily-delineated showing of cause that could be corruption, malfeasance, and conviction, or demonstrated incompetence (which is very hard to show). Those states don’t have that many recalls.

[00:02:37] Other states—Oregon, California, Michigan, Wisconsin—states that you think of as having recalls, they have what’s called a political recall law, where you can effectively remove somebody for any reason whatsoever. They have many more recalls.

[00:02:52] Recalls are very successful. Recalls work. They’re very hard to get on the ballot. But about two-thirds to three-quarters of recall attempts seem to fail at the signature gathering stage. But once they get to the ballot, they succeed. And in my data, about 60% of officials who have faced a recall have lost, and about 6% resign. So about two-thirds of the time, those officials are kicked out.

[00:03:23] For Oregon itself, it’s an interesting story. You compare it to California and you would think California would have a lot more. They do not. They have the same amount of recalls, effectively. Not as much as the biggest recall state, which is Michigan, but both of them over this period have about 150 recalls that have taken place.

[00:03:45] John Q: A South Eugene and OSU graduate can attest to that: It is very difficult to get a recall on the ballot. He was trying to recall three city councilors in Cottage Grove.

[00:03:56] Michael Borke: I learned firsthand on recalls that it is a very complex system to do it, and there are a lot of steps involved with it. Why I got involved was, down in Cottage Grove, a lot of different opinions were brought forth to the city council over a period of time and nothing ever changed. Citizens go forth, they talk, and that’s it. And you don’t hear anything back. And it’s a one-way street, and nothing ever changed. They really don’t listen to the residents, and I think what happens is you get city council members that have been there forever, basically, and they get sort of situated in the same path, and they say, well, this is the way it’s been, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re just going to keep going.

[00:04:46] And what really brought me to the table was three things. One is what they did with their water rates in Cottage Grove. If you take a look, we have the highest water rates in the state, and they chose to raise them again back in August, and there were several people in that neck of the woods on fixed incomes, and they’re hurting. This economy has not helped them with inflation the way it’s been, and then when they take an 8-10% raise on the water rates, and they’re sitting there wondering, ‘Well, do I have water, or do I eat tonight?’ And that’s a good chunk of the population down there that’s on a fixed income.

[00:05:30] You know, our roads down there are terrible and anybody that’s been down there knows that. And we have $1 million a year that is spent to the roads, but most of it just goes to lights. They don’t do anything on the roads themselves.

[00:05:43] But the biggest driving thing has been the homeless population or the unhoused in Cottage Grove. It’s a very large population and it’s a growing population right now. And with all cities are feeling it because of the bills that have passed or the court cases that have come through that have said, ‘Hey, you have to provide housing or a place to stay for the unhoused.’

[00:06:09] And our city sort of went into it without a plan. And they just said, ‘Well, we’ve got 10 camps that we want to open up as people come,’ and they start opening up camps and they have no rules. And so that has created a very high resentment against the unhoused, which is unfortunate, but it’s also brought to the attention that there’s no boundaries.

[00:06:34] The city purchased a lot two houses from me and plowed the house down, graveled it, and put a homeless camp in there. Probably about 40 kids live within, I’d say, 500 feet of that particular establishment. And they really did not think it through when they brought the unhoused in that neighborhood, because now it is someplace where parents will not let their kids be outside without them, or walk down the street, or ride their bikes. And most people have had an experience where they have found unhoused people in their house.

[00:07:11] The city management has sort of backed off and not prosecuted anybody or done anything. They just let them to continue to do that. And in my neighborhood, I know of 10 different houses that have had that problem where they come into the house and somebody’s in their house.

[00:07:27] A lot of it’s mental and a lot of it’s drugs. And that’s an endemic problem within the city and within the country. We’ve had numerous meetings and conferences and things like that with the city, and they want to keep going the same path. And we’re saying, ‘Let’s put the brakes on and do something else.’ And after 10 months, I got tired of it and started a recall process on three of our city council members.

[00:07:53] Knowing what I know now, would I have done it? I don’t know. It’s, it’s a lot of work, it’s very tedious. Most of it gets bogged down in the paperwork . You have to get an EIN number and a PAC number and bank accounts for every single one that you do. It took me about two months to go through that. And then you write up all your petitions for your recalls, and then they have to be approved, and then they go forward from there.

[00:08:19] And then every form has to be the same. If they don’t photocopy right or something like that, they get thrown out. So, just to let you know, we had three recalls, we had the required amount of signatures on all of them, but because of some technical errors of whether they put CG instead of Cottage Grove, or didn’t fill out all the zip codes, or things of that nature, we went down to getting one of them recalled right now, and it’s in the verification process.

[00:08:47] It wasn’t until I started the recall process that the city council members actually started wanting to talk about what’s going on in the city. Now they come out and say, ‘Well, we have some plans in place,’ but here we are two years in the going and nothing’s been done.

[00:09:07] And so that’s primarily the reason why I brought the recall is because we were getting the same response from the same things over and over again.

[00:09:20] As you go out and start talking about—it doesn’t matter what recall you do—you’ll find that people that thought they had no voice whatsoever, find that they could have a voice and you start getting more and more people involved with it. I didn’t have anybody that didn’t sign it. So it was pretty easy, but most of them didn’t know they could do something about it.

[00:09:44] Sandra Bishop: Sandra Bishop, City Club member. Michael, thank you very much for coming today. It’s good to hear the local story behind what’s going on at Cottage Grove. I helped—I didn’t live in the actual district—but I worked very hard on the recall of the (Eugene) city councilor, (Claire) Syrett, and there was a lot of demonization of the people who worked on that recall. And I guess that the question is: Do you think that Oregon laws should be changed so that only malfeasance or actual crime should qualify a person for a recall? Or do you think that Oregon should stay with the system that if the public is dissatisfied with the conduct of an elected official, that they should be able to recall? What is your opinion on that having just been working on this?

[00:10:39] Michael Borke: That’s a real good question. And that’s one that’s been brought to my face a lot of times. And under the current law and the way it’s written, it’s perfectly okay to do that. Now, is it right? I think in some circumstances it is, and probably in other ones, it’s not.

[00:10:57] The way the whole city council’s been for the last three or four years, it’s been all one side basically. There hasn’t been any real discussion on anything or anything like that. So that’s really where the problem comes from. It wouldn’t have mattered if we flooded the city council with 200 people there and all talked about it because we had that whole meeting back in November of last year about that, and they continue to do the same thing.

[00:11:27] So I think when you get to that point of time, that’s when I think a recall is necessary, because you get to a point where, do you really want to continue to let the things happen, or do you want to change and not accept those things anymore and stand firm? And I think that’s really where it comes down to.

[00:11:49] Joshua Spivak: This is a big question with recalls and most states have political recalls for any reason, like Oregon, and a few states have malfeasance standard recalls. But voters seem to prefer the political recall laws and you see that they continually adopt them.

[00:12:07] When you think about recalls, you know, from a broader perspective,  the real question is: What is the role of an elected official? Is an elected official elected to be a trustee, somebody who is there because we feel they have a better view on things? Or are they supposed to be a representative, somebody that we’re electing because we have a position and we want them to be the best advocate for that position? The recall is very much a thumb on the scale of that representative model. And the reality is most people prefer that, you know. Over time we have very much moved to that direction.

[00:12:45] Kitty Piercy: I’m Kitty Piercy and you pointed to the fact that in Cottage Grove, your councilors are all voted in at-large. In Eugene and Springfield, Springfield’s all at-large, and Eugene is by ward. I’d like to hear both of your positions about at-large versus representation from different wards.

[00:13:07] Michael Borke: It’s all at-large for all city council members. Most people aren’t aware of that. I wasn’t aware of that. That is an initiative that I have going forward in Cottage Grove to change that because, that is one of the things that I totally disagree with and a lot of people were not aware of that.

[00:13:26] Joshua Spivak: At-large has the possibility of somewhat of an abusive process where you have a majority and you’re able to just elect everyone as opposed to a district-based, which potentially gives minority voters, (and by minority, I mean, politically minority), a chance to get some representation.

[00:13:46] This actually was the case, by the way, in the early days of segregation, some of the southern states would move from district-based to at-large and then kind of wipe out any minority voters. For recalls, the challenge is this greatly increases the amount of signatures needed.

[00:14:06] Harry Sanger: Harry Sanger. Most Eugene City Council races are decided in an open primary rather than in the general election, which also reduces turnout. In the May 2020 primary election only 4,561 voted—roughly 23% initially voted for (former City Councilor Claire) Syrett while 20% voted to support the recall. So is it any more democratic to elect city councilors in a low turnout primary election than in a low turnout recall election?

[00:14:33] Joshua Spivak: I love that question because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about signature-gathering and the number and how they should be decided. Sometimes turnout is much lower. And I’ve seen where you need eight signatures.

[00:14:44] But sometimes it is much, much higher. The governor of Wisconsin, the two governors of California, the actual recall vote was much higher than the original election, you know, and that’s a gubernatorial election. So, it’s not necessarily that it’ll be a low turnout thing.

[00:15:01] I think that issue of how many signatures are needed, what types of signatures, that’s really a good debate. I have previously thought until this year that it should be tied to how many registered voters, but then there were two elections where I’ve seen in LA and in New Orleans where there was a debate on the (voter) rolls.

[00:15:22] Oregon has actually a really good system, 15% of governors (voters). So it’s not a poor turnout in one small election. You’re basing it on the big election in the state. And that gives you maybe the biggest, voter) roll that you can in terms of how many signatures are needed.

[00:15:40] Ruth Demler: I’d like to refer back to an election change that was made in San Diego…It was money that controlled the elections when it was citywide…With ward or district elections, they could put together just small amounts of money, and see that they were really represented for the first time. And we experienced a completely different group of people running the city.

[00:16:04] John Q: What about the role of money in elections?

[00:16:07] Joshua Spivak: Well, I always like this great quote by Mark Hanna (who’s one of the greatest political consultants ever—he elected William McKinley), which says, ‘There’s two things important in politics: One is money, and I forgot the other.’

[00:16:21] So that is how, really, it will work that way in recalls. It’ll work that way anywhere. You need people to gather signatures. In many states, you have to spend money on that. It really costs a lot. There’s a lot of expenses in terms of getting the recall together. It is very difficult.

[00:16:36] John Q: Why recall at all? Why not wait until the next election?

[00:16:41] Michael Borke: That’s a great question. When I first started into this, it was a passion of mine and I’ll be honest, I really didn’t look at the city councilors and the time that they had left or other things. I just looked at how they voted and how they reacted to certain things out there. And that’s basically what made my decision on who I was going to recall. And at first I was going to just do one, but the way the makeup of the city council was, one wouldn’t have made a difference. So that’s why I chose three, and went from there.

[00:17:15] There are certain things that happen out there that you just can’t tolerate anymore and you’ve got to take a stand. And you fail, then you fail, but at least you made an attempt.

[00:17:27] And if you have the support of the residents, then I think it’s worthwhile. And if I would have went out there and didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t have kept going. I would have stopped and said, okay.

[00:17:38] Mary Leighton: (Michael), I listen to you and I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow, this guy has put hours and hours and hours into walking the pavement,’ ward heeling we used to call that in Chicago. And so when are you going to run for office? I mean, really, you’ve got everything you need to know about the nitty-gritty of it. And you’ve certainly thought of the issues.

[00:17:58] Michael Borke: Well, that’s a great question. And most people that I have talked to said, ‘Well, when are you running?’ And I said, you know, ‘That wasn’t my intent. My intent was to make a change and get the direction going and then go from there.’ But now that it’s progressed a lot longer than what I wanted, I probably will run.

[00:18:21] What I’ve really learned out there is that you have to get out and talk to your residents and find out what’s really affecting them and what they’re looking for. That’s really what it comes down to, is representing the people that are out there. And I think we’ve lost that all across the board.

[00:18:42] John Q: Because recall elections focus on individuals, aren’t they more negative?

[00:18:47] Michael Borke: Well, for me, I never really addressed the councilors. What I addressed was the problems that we had within the city and said, ‘This is the way we’ve been going. We haven’t had any changes.’ Now is the time to make the change, and it was based on roads, water, and our unhoused situations that we had within the city, and them just continuing to go down the path of doing the same thing when they knew—clearly knew—there was problems, but they didn’t want to do anything.

[00:19:22] Joshua Spivak: I don’t see it as more negative than other elections. As I said, and as Michael really showed, it’s generally policy-based. That’s not to say that there’s not negative elections, and a lot of negative campaigning, but it’s really a policy issue.

[00:19:38] And the reality is, elections have always been extremely negative. You know, we like to think that they were this very positive, everybody was just sitting there talking and deciding on who was the best person. But you go back to Jefferson versus Adams, and you will see we were very, very negative in every election.

[00:20:01] John Q: City Club hears from Berkeley’s Joshua Spivak, whose research shows most recall elections are based on policy. After recalls based on the EmX bus, a union conflict, and homeless policy in Cottage Grove, Lane County is right in line with national trends.


In the May 2020 Ward 7 primary election, 6,104 ballots were cast from among 14,660 registered voters, representing 41.6% voter turnout overall, but only 31.1% for those actually voting for a Ward 7 candidate. 1,543 ballots were recorded as “undervotes,” indicating voters did not select any candidate, effectively choosing “None of the Above.” Claire Syrett garnered 2,704 votes, representing 59.3% of votes for candidates, 44.3% of all ballots including undervotes, and 18.4% of all registered voters.

In the September 2022 Ward 7 recall election, 3,929 ballots were cast from among 13,549 registered voters (29.0% voter turnout). There were 2,329 Yes votes, representing 59.3% of all votes and all ballots (including the one undervote), and 17.2% of all registered voters.

The same percentage of votes (59.3%) went to Claire Syrett in the May 2020 primary election as those voting ‘Yes’ to recall in September 2022.

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