The months-long campaign to recall Yamhill County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer, alongside the school board recall efforts in Newberg, may suggest to some people in the county the impression that recalls are a commonplace part of the political scenery.
They’re not. In the bigger picture, they’re an unusual feature of democracy, and in most places they aren’t used all that much or at all.
But in some places they do pop up repeatedly, and Oregon is one of those places.
And where they are used, they tend to get a lot of attention.
You probably don’t know much about the municipal politics of North Pole, Alaska, but in 1998 it came to the world’s attention when its mayor was recalled.
And you might have heard last month about one aspect of Seattle city politics. A council member there, Kshama Sawant, was nearly recalled on December 7, she survived by 310 votes (razor-close in a city the size of Seattle). One of the charges against her, Yamhill countians may be interested to know (with some echoes of local politics), had to do with an incident in which Swant opened the locked doors of city hall to a protesting crowd, in her case Black Lives Matter participants.
In the Northwest, the highest-profile recent successful recall was in 2005 when Spokane Mayor James West was ousted by the voters.
Around the world, most democracies only allow for replacing elected officials at the next election. Apart from the United States - and not in all states - recalls are common features in just a few countries, including Japan, Peru, Ecuador and parts of Germany and Canada, and some other scattered places. Worldwide, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
It wasn’t an original feature of American government, though it was used in some places in colonial and revolutionary America. It was unheard of in America in most of the 19th century, and only as the 20th arrived did the progressive movement of a century ago start to propose it.
This is strictly a state and local government feature, by the way, and 10 states (Utah is the only one in the west) have no provisions for recall. There is no way to recall a member of Congress. People have tried to take up the effort at times over the years, only to learn it isn’t legally possible.
Oregon, famously, was a national leader in this, when voters in 1908 amended the state constitution to allow for the recall (just a few years after approving initiatives, referenda and direct primaries).
The rules surrounding recall vary in detail and overall reach. In Washington state, for example, recall is allowed but proponents have to officially state grounds for recall - and not just any grounds will do. State law says they have to show “Commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violated his oath of office.” Hard facts are needed to support all that, because a court will review the grounds, and will reject the recall effort if the stated grounds don’t meet the legal requirements. Judges sometimes have done just that. Washington is not alone in setting a moderate-to-high bar for recalls. Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Virginia also place specific requirements on recalls; only certain types of violations will qualify.
Oregon is looser in that regard: No grounds are required.
Oregon also allows for recall of every public officer in the state; many states only allow certain officials to be recalled, in some cases only a few categories of them.
You do have to wait at least six months after the official is sworn in to try to recall them. (The law is saying the public has to give the official a chance to do the job properly.)
Oregon also does have (as recall backers in the Yamhill commission case have learned in detail) highly specific requirements for petition signature collections and numbers of signatures, and a deadline for submission.
And maybe because the recall option goes back so far in the state’s history, it has become in the state a relatively often-used device. In the last five years, at least 37 attempted recalls, most at the city and county level but a few aimed at state officials, have been tried. In the last couple of decades, many of Yamhill County’s cities have seen recall attempts, usually unsuccessful.
Some Oregon recalls do succeed. In 2018 Toledo Mayor Billy Jo Smith and a couple of council members were ousted over complaints about how city business was being managed. In 2011 Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight and two council members were recalled after a squabble related to the city manager.
Most such efforts never get as far as actual elections, though. One good example - or several, depending on how you count - would be the recurring effort in recent years to recall Governor Kate Brown.
Recalling an elected official isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be: Set the bar too low and any official with a critic will face endless attempts at a recall, and a government can’t function. The legal requirements generally are intended to ensure that a large portion of the electorate really wants to undo what the voters not so long ago did. That’s also the reason for the “grounds” in states like Washington, to ensure that the problems generating the recall actually are serious enough that the city, county or state really can’t wait until next time around.
Still, the recall is there for a reason. Sometimes mistakes are made in elections, as they are everywhere else. It’s there, as a last-resort safety valve.
As in the case of regular elections, it’s up to the voters to decide whether to exercise it.
This article originally appeared in the McMinnville (OR News-Register.