Recall Attempts Blew Up in 2020—and COVID Had Everything to Do With It | Opinion

While the federal elections received nearly all the attention this year, state and local officials, many of whom were not up for a vote, have felt a good deal of the anger from the policy implications of the COVID pandemic. While they can hope that the pandemic and shutdowns are a distant memory by the time they face the voters, a look at the use of recalls—the ultimate direct democracy—has shown how the pandemic has both limited and expanded action against officials.

As stay-at-home orders foreclosed in-person campaigning, recalls did not get on the ballot to the same degree as in past years. At least 434 recalls were attempted or threatened in 2020, which is almost 100 more than in 2019. But at least partially due to the inability to gather signatures, only 80 recalls either got to the ballot or led to a resignation, slightly less than the 87 from 2019 (generally, there are more recalls in even years, perhaps due to a grace period for officials at the start of their term.) Of those 80, 42 officials were kicked out of office and 24 survived the vote. Another 14 officials resigned. Six other recalls were set to get to the ballot but the elections were cancelled due to the coronavirus.

What we saw in 2020 was an unusual focus of the recalls. Normally, recalls occur for a host of local reasons, almost none of which cross county, not to mention state, lines. But 2020 saw one subject become an overarching theme to recall attempts: At least 87 were launched in 2020 at state and local officials' responses to the pandemic. These recalls were generally aimed at only one side of the discussion, as 80 targeted officials who voted for business and school shut down provisions designed to stem the spread of the disease.

In general, these recalls have failed. Only two officials faced elections at least in part on pandemic issues—on opposite sides of the issue—and both were removed: A School Board member in White Pine, Idaho who voted to support distance learning and the Mayor of Oregon City, who opposed masks and social distancing. Three other School Board members resigned after facing recall threats—two in West Ada, Idaho and one in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Mayor of West Plains, Missouri will resign, though he stated the resignation has nothing to do with the threatened recall. In addition, the Mayor of Auburn, California died in a plane crash while signatures were being gathered.

Fourteen Governors faced recall efforts, with 12 of them clearly focused on the pandemic. For some perspective, only 19 Governors throughout the country are even subject to a potential recall. While Republicans have been futilely pushing recalls against Democratic governors since the party's disastrous performance in 2018, 2020 saw the pandemic become the front and center excuse for gubernatorial recalls. Republican governors were also suddenly targets, with recalls threatened against the Governors of Arizona, Idaho and Georgia. Up till now, these recall attempts have come to naught, though the recall against California Governor Gavin Newsom has reportedly gained steam in recent months following revelations. Not coincidentally, California's Governor faces the easiest recall law to get on the ballot for any state's chief executive in the country.

While most recalls fail to get to the ballot box, those that do have a good chance of success—approximately 60 percent of officials who face recalls lose their seats, with another 6 percent resigning.

Fortunately for state and local officials, despite 87 attempts, the COVID recalls have barely made a dent on their political lives. But they should be aware that they may still portend some risk of being ousted in 2021.

Joshua Spivak is a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He blogs at RecallElectionBlog.com

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.