There was a time, not so long ago, when the phrase “permanent campaign” described a state of mind. Now, as the number of state legislators who find themselves facing recall efforts mounts, the permanent campaign is taking on a much more literal meaning. The recall election, once reserved for forcing out elected officials accused of crimes, ethics violations or gross misconduct, has become an overtly political tool — there’s even an app for recalls now. Since 2011, voters in four states have successfully mounted petition drives to recall state legislators over new laws curbing the influence of public unions or expanding the reach of background checks on gun purchasers. The number of recalls has spiked dramatically in recent years. Of the 32 successful recalls in the United States since 1911, one third — 11 — have taken place since 2011.
Of the 21 recall efforts that succeeded in forcing a sitting elected official back onto the ballot but failed at the polls, 13 have taken place in the past two years.
Two factors are driving the splurge of recall signature gathering: First, previously parochial politics are taking on a national flavor. Second, new technology available to political activists is lowering the once-high barrier to entry.
Early recall elections were overwhelmingly about local issues. When voters ousted Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill, a Republican, in 1911, they rendered a quick verdict on his legalization of gambling and prostitution in the city. Anti-tax activists in California succeeded in recalling Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 after he backed a $4 billion increase in vehicle license fees that pushed his approval ratings to record lows.