Monday, April 1, 2013

Limits on the recall process reduces democracy

Proposal would require "triggering mechanisms" for recalls of local officeholders

A proposed bill in the State Senate would limit the recall process for local officials.

Under Senate Bill 114, recall petitions for “a city, village, town, town sanitary district, or school district” officials would require a statement describing a specific criminal or ethical wrongdoing that had occurred before a petition could be circulated.

Currently, recalls for elected officials need only a reason to be listed, and doesn’t require a “triggering” mechanism such as criminal activity or unethical behavior before it can come about.

The law proposed would only affect recalls at the local level. Statewide officials -- state senators, the governor, and any other officeholder elected to serve in state government -- would be exempted from the law because they are bound to state constitutional standards, as would county officials.

Changing those standards requires an amendment, while changing the standards for local recalls merely requires a change in state law. Yet the law, if passed, would create a terrible precedent, and already Republican lawmakers are seeking to change the recall process for state officials as well.

With the onslaught of recalls our state saw in 2011 and 2012, it’s expected that some will welcome this legislation with open arms. But it sets a terrible precedent, and needlessly upends a legislative right that the people deservingly hold.

The consent of the governed is what determines who serves at the state and local levels. Progressive reformers in the early 20th century, recognizing the growing influence of corporatist lawmakers oftentimes ignoring the will of the people, suggested the recall as a vehicle to hold them responsible for their votes.

Critics of the recall, such as Republican State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, view it more negatively:
It is a very dangerous road to go down to allow recalls when there’s a disagreement on an issue. You don’t want to discourage elected officials from making those tough decisions.
The argument over whether legislators serve as trustees or as delegates to the people has been a dichotomatic fixture of political philosophy for centuries, and its relation to the recall is certainly worth continuing the debate over. But certainly the people have the right to select a representative that reflects their interests, to recognize for themselves when they have stepped too far in favor of the “trustee” model and acted outside of their desires in a way that causes more harm than good.

The people ought to have a mechanism that allows them to punish those that have gone too far, to reprimand the lawmakers that seemed to have represented them initially and who once deserved their votes, but who no longer carries similar desires as their constituency. They shouldn’t be forced to have to spend the remainder of the legislator’s term subjected to “improper representation,” to having a person in their appointed seat casting votes that go against their collective will.

The recall serves in that capacity, and changing it in the way proposed above would hamper the democratic process. Yes, politicians need to make bold decisions that at times go against their constituents’ wishes. But for all other circumstances, and especially when politicians make moves that lack ANY empathy for the people they serve whatsoever, the recall is a reasonable tool for ousting a representative in favor of one who better serves constituents’ needs.

The problem that political “leaders” like Scott Walker and Sheila Harsdorf see is the recall itself; it may do them some good to understand that’s not the problem at all. The real problem is that political leaders are passing legislation that goes against the wishes and desires of the people they serve.

When that problem is properly addressed, the need for recalls will become obsolete. Until that time, however, recalls are a necessary element in our unique and independent Wisconsin democracy.

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