Recalls return to normal after pandemic surge

More than 100 public officials across the United States faced the impact of recall elections year
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)

More than 100 public officials across the United States faced the impact of recall elections year, a return to normalcy after two consecutive years in which the coronavirus pandemic inspired a huge number of recall efforts across the nation, but a drop in actual results

Voters in 21 states used the recall against 108 public officials this year, according to my analysis of nationwide trends. Eighty-six of those officials faced recall elections, and voters gave 50 their walking papers. Just 36 survived.

Another 18 didn’t even wait for recalls to force them back onto the ballot. Those officials resigned before they had to face voters again.

The number of officials who faced actual recall elections rose this year, but the number of attempts to recall officials dropped back to more normal levels. In 2020 and 2021, voter anger over pandemic-era lockdowns inspired far more recall efforts. In 2021 alone, voters attempted to recall officials more than 600 times, compared with 415 times this year.

In 2020, just 66 officials were forced into recall elections, and 14 more resigned before they had to face a recall. The same number, 66, faced recalls in 2021, and another 17 resigned early. 

Voters attempted to recall at least 14 governors across the nation in 2020. Only one such campaign succeeded in getting to the ballot in 2021, in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) became just the second governor in American history to survive a recall attempt.

The most high-profile recall elections this year took place in San Francisco, where voters ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin and three members of the school board. 

Boudin was one of two district attorneys who followed the “progressive prosecutor” model to lose his job. In Colorado, District Attorney Alonzo Payne (D) quit his post overseeing six counties in the San Luis Valley rather than face a recall.

A recall campaign nearly qualified in Los Angeles, where opponents of District Attorney George Gascon turned in 520,000 valid signatures — 46,000 short of the number they needed to force him back on the ballot. That appears to be the largest number of signatures collected in an attempt to recall anyone other than a governor or lieutenant governor in American history.

After two years of pandemic-related shutdowns and angst, most recalls that made the ballot this year focused on more local issues, including disputes over firing a city administrator or the cost of sewage projects.

Several recall attempts this year sputtered for administrative reasons, most notably the mayor of Dolton, Ill., who lost a recall vote. A judge struck down her removal.

In Virginia, a unique “recall trial” law puts the decision to oust officials in the hands of a judge. In a case this year, a judge decided that two Loudoun County School Board members who faced recall attempts should stay in office.

Voters in Michigan and Wisconsin ousted ten local officials over opposition to expanding wind and solar farms, in what may amount to an early warning sign for green energy companies hoping to expand their Midwestern footprints. Four more recalls in Michigan are already scheduled on the issue for 2023.

The most prominent recall effort next year may be one aiming to boot Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de Leon, who was caught on tape using foul language with two fellow council members strategizing over redistricting. 

One of those other members caught on tape, Council President Nury Martinez, resigned in the face of mounting recall threats. 12 recalls are already scheduled to go to the voters in 2023. The first one, against a city council member in Oregon, is scheduled for Jan. 3.

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.