11 September 2013

Two Democratic State Senators Recalled In Colorado

Colorado State Senate President John Morse and Colorado State Senator Angela Giron were recalled in yesterday's recall elections. Republicans tried to recall four state senators over their votes in support of gun control legislation earlier this year, but only managed to gather enough signatures to put two recalls on the ballot.

Democrats Narrowly Remain In Control in 2014

Democrats went into the recall election with a 20-15 majority in the State Senate.  After the recall, Democrats will have a razor thin 18-17 majority in the State Senate, giving the Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly less freedom to enact a broad liberal agenda as they did earlier this year, because any one defection from their Senate caucus would defeat a bill.  But, Colorado State House and the Governor's mansion are still controlled by Democrats, so the recalls will not allow Republicans to make any major gains.

State Senators serve four year terms.  Morse and Giron were each elected in 2010, so the replacement candidate will serve for only one legislative session, from January to early May of 2014, before the next ordinary state senate election in November of 2014. 

In 2014, the seat from which Morse was just recalled will still be competitive, although the recall with give Republican State Senator Herpin the advantage of incumbency.  But, absent a truly impressive moderate performance by Republican State Senator Rivera, he will have an uphill battle getting re-elected in this Democratic leaning district in 2014.

Analysis of the Recall Races

Ballot Issue State Senate 3 - Recall Giron
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Updated 53 minutes ago

Ballot Issue State Senate 11 - Recall Morse

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Surprisingly, the race in urban and resort areas in and near Colorado Spring represented by Morse was closer than the result in liberal leaning Pueblo County.

Morse's district has always been a close one.  Colorado Springs is a conservative stronghold in the state, but Morse's central city and tourism oriented Manitou Springs district is a relatively liberal pocket within it.  In 2010, he managed to win his race only on the strength of low turnout and a strong showing by a Libertarian candidate that hurt the Republican candidate more than Morse, the Democrat.  In that race, Morse got 13,866 votes, Republican Owen Hill garnered 13,526 votes, and Libertarian candidate Randall secured 1,320 votes.

But, despite those challenges, the Morse recall prevailed by only 343 votes out of 17,845 votes cast in State Senate District 11 in an early September election with far lower turnout than the 2010 general election, a factor that generally hurts Democrats.  The recall had less than 51% support.  Morse will be replaced by Republican Bernie Herpin (a former Colorado Springs City Councilman).  District 11 has about 10% more registered Democrats than it does registered Republicans, but independents in Colorado Springs are more conservative leaning than in many other parts of the state.

Giron's dramatic upset in favor of Republican George Rivera (Pueblo's former Deputy Police Chief) in State Senate District 3 where Democrats have a decisive voter registration edge (registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 2-1 in the district) was a much bigger surprise. She won her race in 2010 against Republican Vera Ortegon by 24,827 to 20,313.  Again, turnout was lower in the recall election than in the 2010 election, but the turnout lag was smaller than in Morse's race.

The Denver Post's account attributes Giron's weakness to opposition to gun control among blue collar Democrats who predominate in her district.

It bears noting that both Morse and Giron are running in different districts than they were elected in at the 2010 general election.  A new state senate district map was adopted following the 2010 census and this is the first time elections were held in either of the new districts.  But, given that the map adopted following the 2010 census in Colorado was basically a Democratic proposal, this should have helped rather than hurt them.

The take home lessons for Democrats

The Democratic party, for more than its Republican counterpart, is a big tent.  Many different groups of voters are united in its center-left coalition and these coalition partners don't agree with each other on every policy issue.  Issues that starkly divide partners within a political party coalition are called "wedge issues" and these recall elections have clearly demonstrated that gun control is a wedge issue within the Democratic party in Colorado.  White urban liberals and central city blacks like gun control.  Rural and small town, blue collar, Hispanic Democrats, like those in Pueblo, don't like gun control.

Democrats, as a party, need to be sensitive to wedge issues and individual Democratic elected officials need to listen carefully to where their supporters stand on these issues.  The party leadership needs to carefully balance the political costs and policy benefits of each particular piece of wedge issue legislation and step back from the brink when the policy benefits don't clearly outweigh the political costs.

Senator Morse knew his district and retained the same level of support he came into office with, despite his support for strong gun control legislation.  Senator Giron didn't realize the extent to which her legislative efforts on the gun control issue were playing poorly in her district and paid a high political price for this oversight that earned her a dramatic recall election rebuke.

Some of the gun control measures passed in 2013, like the universal background check legislation, were innocuous politically and probably did provide substantial policy benefits to the state.  But others, like bans on high capacity gun magazines, probably didn't provide much policy benefit and carried a high political price.  A slightly more discriminating approach to proposed gun control legislation would have left Democrats in a stronger position going into the 2014 legislative session.

(Incidentally, it is also worth noting that Democrats have paid essentially no political price for enacting "good government" election law legislation that clearly favors Democrats at the expense of Republicans.  What is controversial with politicians of the opposite political party may not be wedge issues for a political party's own base of voters.)

Did the system work?

Recall elections for local government officials aren't that uncommon, but state legislators are extremely rare.

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction (a Colorado based political scientist) notes that:
There have been 38 state legislative recall elections in U.S. history. 17 of them have occurred just in this decade. This is proving to be a popular tool of the minority party, especially when the majority has unified control of the state and the minority has few other ways to slow down legislation it doesn't like.
Only about ten such efforts had ever been successful before yesterday, in Michigan, California and Wisconsin, respectively, all since 1983 and most in the last few years. [Ed. actually based on review of a list cited by Seth Masket there have been twenty-one successful recalls of state legislators in U.S. history, including Arizona, Idaho and Oregon as well.]  Colorado has never before had a successful state legislative recall effort.  As in yeterday's case in Colorado, most state legislative recall campaigns involve multiple candidates, each of whom supported the same package of legislation, so there have been even fewer distinct recall campaigns than there have been successfully recalled candidates.

There are more than 3,000 state legislators in the United States as a whole, about two-thirds of whom have two years terms and most of the balance of whom have four year terms.  Thus, there have been more than 50,000 state legislators elected (counting re-elections separately and ignoring vacancy elections) since 1971, during which period there have been 33 recall attempts and 18 state legislators actually recalled (although this isn't a fully fair comparison as most states don't have recall provisions under their state's law and state constitutions).

Frequent general elections for legislators, the fact that many legislative seats are safe, and the fact that legislators are rarely in a position to take action that can be squarely attributed to them alone because they are part of a collective legislative process (as well as the fact that few state constitutions even allow for recall elections and that those that due place substantial barriers to getting a recall on the ballot) all discourage recalls for state legislators.  Media coverage of state legislative action is also often so limited that it rarely excites political action at the grass roots.

In this case, the partisan is shifted by two seats out of thirty-five for one year out of four year terms.

Just as in Colorado, the recent recall elections for state legislators in Wisconsin in 2011, after controversial anti-union legislation was enacted by the Republican majorities there, also failed to change the balance of power.  The only time a recall election of state legislators has ever tipped the partisan balance of power was in Wisconsin in 2012.

In both Colorado and Wisconsin, it seems that the petition requirements to obtain a recall election are a crude but not wildly inaccurate measure of whether there is enough support for a recall to make its success at the ballot box likely but hardly a certainty, which is just about whether that petition threshold should be set.  Many efforts to recall incumbents in both states failed for lack of petition support.

Riding Groundswells Of Opinion Or Providing Sour Grapes Do Overs?

If one believes in recalls, one wants a genuine dramatic shift in constituent opinion to have an outlet, while discouraging gamesmanship in cases where slight differences in the process between the general election process and the recall election process give sore losers an edge.

In the case of State Senator Giron, there is no real doubt that this happened.  She went from having comfortable majority support in 2010 to experiencing a decisive loss in 2013.  The percentage shift (from a win with 54% of the vote, to a loss with 44% of the vote) was far too great to be accounted for through mere differences in technicalities of the election process and decisively reversed the result of the most recent legislative election, three years earlier.  Recall elections exist to produce this result.

In the case of State Senator Morse, the result looks more like a do over by a sore loser.  The percentage of all of the votes cast which were cast for Morse in 2010 and in 2013 were almost exactly the same (he won 48.4% of the vote in 2010).  Public support for Morse in his district was virtually unchanged almost three years later despite the issues that drove the recall.  But, because his win in 2010 was so tenuous, tiny factors related as much to the election process as to a genuine groundswell of support for a recall were enough to remove him from office.

Democracy In Action?

Still, using the electoral system to attempt to shift the partisan balance based on constituent dissatisfaction with the policies that their elected legislative representatives are adopting certainly seems like Democracy in action.  And, a candidate who just barely ecks out a victory by exploiting a flaw in the electoral process in the first place, as Morse basically did in 2010 (itself an off year election) may deserve to be on his toes at all time.

If they were common, the administrative and political process burden of recall elections might be a real concern, particularly if failed recall elections became the norm.  But, since recall elections are (so far) extremely rare, this burden doesn't weigh heavily against the benefits of making the option available.

Recall elections reinforce, rather than undermine the political party system, which can mute excessive special interest legislative power since political parties require large coalitions of interests to function.  Unlike the initiative and referendum process, recall elections don't promote policy making by sound bite, or a take it or leave it legislative process that allows good proposals with technical shortcomings to become law.

Recall elections, so far, haven't produced swift turnabouts in policy that the public could have waited just a little longer to accomplish with less election process costs in ordinary general elections.  But, they do leave open that potential during periods of time when a legislature is lagging behind fast moving political currents of the kinds seen following the collapse of the Soviet Union or in the Arab Spring.  And, having this safety valve available in more critical historical moments might very well be a good thing.

Recall Elections As Political Warning Shots and Bellwethers

Also, recall elections provide information from the electoral to the political system, even though they only pertain to a small number of the total number of elected offices.

In many countries, by-elections to fill legislative vacancies are considered critical bellwether moments at which the heartbeat of the voting public can be gauged.  The widespread use of sophisticated political polling has damped the need for this kind of input, but the nuances of the election results and surprises in their outcomes relative to conventional wisdom send strong messages to legislators and other elected officials between regular elections that often have a disproportionate influence on how the legislative process is conducted going forward.

In effect, a successful recall election sends a warning to everyone who wasn't the subject of the recall which can be reacted to as the elected officials and political actors involved see fit.


A complete list of all state legislative recalls in U.S. history via the link in Seth's post, is as follows (and is probably more accurate than my link to Wikipedia on the same subject).  It appears that out of 38 attempts that 21 have resulting in recalls while 17 failed.
  • 1913: California state senator Marshall Black was recalled.
  • 1914: California state senator Edwin Grant was recalled.
  • 1914: California state senator James Owens survived a recall election.
  • 1932: Wisconsin state senator Otto Mueller survived a recall election.
  • 1935: Oregon state representative Harry Merriam was recalled.
  • 1971: Idaho state senator Fisher Ellsworth was recalled.
  • 1971: Idaho state representative Aden Hyde was recalled.
  • 1981: Washington state senator Peter von Reichbauer survived a recall election.
  • 1983: Michigan state senator Phil Mastin was recalled.
  • 1983: Michigan state senator David Serotkin was recalled. (Technically he resigned from office before the results of the recall election were certified, but the results were sufficient to recall him.)
  • 1985: Oregon state representative Pat Gillis was recalled.
  • 1988: Oregon state senator Bill Olson was recalled.
  • 1990: Wisconsin state assembly member Jim Holperin survived a recall election.
  • 1994: California state senator David Roberti survived a recall election.
  • 1995: California assembly member Paul Horcher was recalled.
  • 1995: California assembly member Michael Machado survived a recall election.
  • 1995: California assembly member Doris Allen was recalled.
  • 1996: Wisconsin state senator George Petak was recalled.
  • 2003: Wisconsin state senator Gary George was recalled.
  • 2008: California state senator Jeff Denham survived a recall election.
  • 2008: Michigan house speaker Andy Dillon survived a recall election.
  • 2011: Wisconsin state senators Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Dave Hansen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jim Holperin, Luther Olsen and Robert Wirch survived attempted recalls, while Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke were recalled.
  • 2011: Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce was recalled on November 8.
  • 2011: Michigan state representative Paul Scott was recalled on November 8.
  • 2012: Wisconsin state senator Van Wanggaard was recalled. Senate Republican leader Scott Fitzgerald and senator Terry Moulton survived recall elections. Senator Pam Galloway resigned earlier in the year when sufficient signatures were gathered to trigger a recall election. Even though her name wasn't on the ballot, a recall election was still held for her seat. All four senate seats in the recall election were held by Republicans; after the recall, three remain in Republican hands and one switched to the Democrats, giving control of the Senate to the Democratic party.
  • 2013: Colorado Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela were recalled on September 10.

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