Recall elections hit historic highs

More than 100 elected officials were recalled by voters or resigned from office in 2023.
FILE – Supporters of a campaign to recall Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon gather to view a truck full of petitions outside the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Norwalk, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis,File)

More than 100 elected officials were recalled by voters or resigned from office in the face of recall votes in 2023, the highest number of public officials given the boot in more than a decade.

The recent rash of recalls illustrates angry electorates — but, as has been the case through most of recent history, those sets of voters who ousted their officials tended to be focused on issues of local concern, rather than broad national trends.

Ninety-nine elected officials in 17 states faced recall elections in 2023, and more than three-quarters of those who faced voters again — 77 — lost their bids to remain in office. Another 31 officials resigned before recall votes could be held.

That’s a significant spike from 2022, when 52 officials were removed and 18 more resigned before recall votes could be held. That year, 37 officials survived recall votes.

In 2023, at least 428 elected officials faced serious recall efforts, about the same as the 417 who faced such attempts in 2022. The number of recalls attempted has stabilized since 2021, when activists angry over pandemic-era lockdowns tried to force more than 600 elected officials to face voters once again.

Oregon state Rep. Paul Holvey (D) became the first sitting state legislator in five years to face a recall election, when local union officials targeted the Eugene Democrat over his opposition to legislation allowing cannabis workers to unionize.

Holvey, a former union organizer himself, easily kept his seat when 90% of his constituents voted against the recall effort.

In Michigan, Republican activists filed recall petitions against ten members of the state House of Representatives, including members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Those recalls have not yet gained sufficient steam to qualify for the ballots.

The activists ostensibly sought to recall those legislators over votes on gun control and LGBTQ rights, though they seemed to represent more of a primal scream after the GOP lost control of state government for the first time in nearly four decades — control they first won in 1983, after successful recall attempts against two Democratic state senators.

A substantial number of recalls mounted this year focused on parochial disagreements, including a fired city manager or school superintendent, or zoning and development disputes.

Arguably the most prominent recalls were those that hit in on national issues, but with a distinctly local bent.

In Michigan, six township officials in Green Charter and Big Rapids — small cities in rural Mecosta County — were kicked out, and two more resigned, over their support for a battery component manufacturing facility which petitioners complained had ties to China.

In the same vein, opponents of a plan to bring a Chinese-based company’s corn mill to Grand Forks, N.D., attempted to recall the city’s council president. The issue dissipated after the U.S. Air Force claimed the mill would represent a national security threat to a nearby air base.

Recalls of 19 officials, one in Wisconsin and the rest in Michigan, were undertaken over votes to expand the use of solar farms and wind turbines. Sixteen of those officials were removed and one resigned. Only two survived the vote.

Those votes show the rise of recall elections over opposition to renewable energy projects for traditional NIMBY reasons, as residents who oppose bigger turbines and large solar farms in their back yards rally to reject the politicians who support those projects.

The coming year may once again shine a spotlight on another recently popular form of recall, over lax criminal justice policies.

Petitioners in the Bay Area are seeking to recall Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price, the latest target of a national push against progressive prosecutor movements. Those efforts have already resulted in the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and a strong challenge to Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, in which petitioners fell about 40,000 signatures short of forcing Gascon onto the ballot.

The first recall elections of the year are already on the calendar, even before 2024 arrives: Nineteen recalls have already qualified for the ballot in nine states, over issues ranging from a school mascot and racist comments to book bans and a water rate hike.

The first election targets Terri Cunningham-Swanson, a member of the Plattsmouth Community Schools Board of Education in rural Nebraska. Cunningham-Swanson faces voters on Jan. 9.

Joshua Spivak is a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center and a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He is the author of Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom. Follow him on Twitter @RecallElections.