Over a decade ago, an angry group of residents of the small town of Vincent collected the signatures of 30% of the town’s voters and started a petition to have the entire municipal government recalled to following a dispute over a controversial zoning decision.
But there was one big problem behind that effort: No recall provision is written into state law in Alabama.
“It started, but went quickly from there,” said Raymond McAllister, who was mayor when the failed recall effort surfaced in 2011.
Alabama is one of 31 states that do not allow elections to remove public officials from any office. Additionally, Alabama is not among the 27 states that allow citizen-led initiatives or referendums, which would allow voters to bypass the legislature to have popular issues allowed through the ballot box, such as the lottery. and games of chance.
“I used to tell students that you probably want a citizens’ initiative and a callback in Alabama,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University. “But you probably don’t want it to be done as easily as Western states. As you can see, (California) had chaos in their hands. “
“Controls and counterweights”
Efforts to get the recall or citizens’ initiatives approved in Alabama have already surfaced, and they could very well again in the statewide races of 2022. The national attention of the recall election of last week in California keeps the concept fresh in the minds of voters, and at least one politician is looking to make it a top campaign priority.
Alabama auditor Jim Zeigler, who is considering a 2022 gubernatorial candidacy, said he would make the recall part of his platform if he decided to run a full-fledged campaign for it. most elected seat in the state.
His comments come about five years after the last legislative push to get the recall approved. In 2016, Republican Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth – then Guntersville state lawmaker – sponsored recall legislation at the height of a scandal involving the then governor. Robert Bentley. His bill was passed by a House committee but never received a floor vote.
Zeigler claims Bentley was said to have been recalled “a year and a half before he was finally forced to resign” amid a scandal alleging an extramarital affair with a key staff member and cover-up by law enforcement.
Zeigler, also a chief critic for Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration, said he believed the current governor could have been recalled in 2019, following the approval of the Alabama Reconstruction Act during of a special legislative session in which lawmakers approved a 10 cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase that she was pushing to support the roads and bridges program.
“I think I can make recall an issue in the gubernatorial campaign,” Zeigler said. “Political pressure from an organized group of citizens could force the publication of a recall law.”
Alabama once authorized recall elections for municipal board forms of government, which are almost all extinct in Alabama. There is only one form of municipal government commission – in Dothan – and officials recently pointed out that a 1992 court ruling determined that a 1990 municipal ordinance authorizing recalls from the city was unconstitutional.
State Representative Mike Ball, R-Madison – who once lobbied for citizens’ initiatives in Alabama and years ago sponsored legislation that would have given voters the power to directly propose and pass legislation – said he was unsure of a recall election in the current hyper-polarized political environment, is a good idea.
Ball has said that a stabilized government is the key to a state’s “economic success” and he believes an environment that favors an easy overthrow of politicians can be damaging.
He said he was concerned about instability in the government and believed a recall “can lead to this if there are no checks and balances”.
“Elections have consequences”
Recall elections have existed for 118 years, since the city of Los Angeles first allowed them in 1903. A year later, voters called a recall election and removed a city councilor for supporting a controversial printing contract with the Los Angeles Times.
Only two governors were removed from their posts by the recall process – in 1921 in North Dakota; and in 2003, in California, when voters recalled Democratic Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A slew of successful recalls surfaced about a decade ago when state mayors and lawmakers in Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere were removed from their posts. But over the years, a number of politicians have succeeded in derailing recall efforts, most notably former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012.
Critics argue that recalls are costly – California’s recall elections cost around $ 300 million – and are being abused by well-funded special interest groups and political strategists. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who raised around $ 72 million to campaign, easily defeated the recall when 67% of voters objected.
Supporters say the recalls offer citizens a way to control elected officials who do not represent their constituencies.
At least two political strategists in Alabama think they’re not worth it.
“Our electoral system was created with automatic recall provisions,” said Brent Buchanan, a political consultant based in Montgomery. “They are called elections.
He added: “Politics is driven by fear, anger and anxiety. The more the political pendulum swings, the more likely we are to make rash decisions outside the scope of the elections originally planned by our founders, where public servants face the public.
Angi Stalnaker, a political consultant also based in Montgomery, said the California recall should serve as a warning sign to supporters of the recall: it was costly, with taxpayer dollars “spent to change nothing.”
“Elections have consequences,” she said. “If you decide the losing side is asking for reminders over and over again, everything you do is costing taxpayers millions of dollars for those races. It’s money that could go to education, roads, and a variety of things. All you do is give the losing game a chance to start over.
‘Everything can happen’
Recall elections also produce unlikely choices for a higher office. The main replacement candidate against Newsom was Republican Larry Elder, a right-wing talk show host who was seen outside the mainstream of voters in California, where all office holders in the state are Democrats.
Alabama is almost the exact opposite of California, where all of the state’s elected officials are Republicans and the Legislative Assembly is made up of a qualified majority GOP.
But the state is only four years away from the election of a Democrat to the post of U.S. senator, when Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special election that garnered international media attention. . Jones became the first Democratic lawmaker to win a statewide election since 2008.
“Anytime you have a special election, anything can happen,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University in Washington, DC. “You often end up with a candidate who wins with less appeal. wide because the constituency that elects them is much narrower than a general election and this creates issues of governance and legitimacy.
Zeigler said any provision for a recall in Alabama would require tighter thresholds to trigger a recall election than in California, where only 12% of voters who turned out in previous elections can request a recall. He also said he would like to see a run-off between the two candidates receiving the most votes if voters back the incumbent politician’s recall.
“That’s 12 percent of the turnout in an off-year election,” Belt said. “Setting the threshold means that it will be easy to get that number of signatures to knock someone down. And it’s hard to govern if a governor is worried about a recall election. “
Most states with recall elections have higher thresholds. Arizona requires the signature of 25% of voters in the previous election to trigger a recall election. In Georgia, the threshold for a recall of incumbents of state constitutional officers is 15%, but at least one-fifteenth of the signatures must come from residents of each of the congressional districts. In local races, the recall threshold is 30%.
Of the 19 states that allow the recall, only two are from the southeastern United States – Georgia and Louisiana. Of the 27 states that allow citizen initiatives, only three are in the Deep South: Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida.
The Mississippi Initiative process, which has been in place since 1992, is currently in flux after being challenged in court over a medical marijuana measure that voters approved last year. .
“In the South, we don’t have a lot of a tradition of initiative and recall like we do in the Midwest and West,” Brown said. “Reminders are a good idea, but you don’t want the signing threshold to be too low and you want to make sure that the mechanism you use to put the new person in power is an orderly process. “
Belt said, “These callbacks are good ideas in principle, but you have to be very careful with their mechanics. The best advice is to be careful what you want.