Government by recall

This editorial appeared in Friday's Washington Post.

On Tuesday, voters recalled two Colorado state senators who supported a new gun-control law. For helping to restrict the size of ammunition clips and expand background checks, Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, both Democrats, received early retirement.

We favor stricter gun regulations. But we would have found the latest recall drive ominous had these politicians voted against the gun-control law and it had been anti-firearms activists who had succeeded in booting them from office.

Recalls are rare, but their use is on the rise. Nineteen states and the District have recall procedures of some kind. Though states began adopting these recall provisions in 1908, two of the three gubernatorial recall elections occurred in the last decade. Forty-five percent of recall attempts against state lawmakers occurred between 2011 and 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The nationalization of local issues, which prompts huge flows of outside money into state politics, and improvements in signature-gathering technology have encouraged a spike in recall efforts, The Washington Post's Reid Wilson reckons.

Recalls should target those who deserve extraordinary rebuke, primarily those guilty of malfeasance. It should not become a regular feature of America's system of government, which is premised on the notion that voters entrust their representatives to act with deliberation and a degree of independence.

Gun advocates might feel that Morse and Giron's votes were unpardonable, just as many liberals probably felt similarly about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, R, ramming through an anti-union law, prompting an unsuccessful recall effort there last year. But demanding their immediate ouster is a harmful overreaction.

Yes, countries with parliamentary systems regularly subject their leaders to no-confidence votes. That chaotic arrangement isn't a model to emulate, particularly in America's polarized politics. The result would be recall after recall not for corruption, incompetence or some massive failure but for the honest exercise of judgment. Special-interest groups capable of funding and organizing recall efforts would have another point at which to use their leverage. The threat of immediate punishment for making contentious choices would mean that politicians would be even less inclined to make hard decisions.

States should examine their laws with an eye toward heightening the barriers to recalling politicians. Increasing signature requirements in states where they are modest would make sense, as would narrowing the grounds on which politicians can be recalled. Alaska, for example, allows recalls only for "Lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties or corruption." Voters ought to make their choices and then allow their representatives to assemble and run on a record from a full term.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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