How much is enough?
One of the time-honored themes of Election Day in this country is that it gives voters the opportunity to throw the rascals out.
That, of course, raises question of how the rascals ever got elected in the first place. But people get the idea — elected officials are elected to serve a prescribed term in office. If they want to keep their jobs, they must not only do their jobs but persuade voters they are acting in the public’s best interests.
But some people and some states — California and Wisconsin, to name just two — have short-circuited the regular election cycle with options for special recall elections that target a public official.
The public has just seen the proposed recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom be rejected by voters there. Just a few years ago, there was a similar 2012 recall election aimed at former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Indeed, Walker found himself in the odd position of running for governor three times in four years. He was first elected in 2010, then he won a recall election in 2012 and then he won re-election to a second four-year term in 2014.
That raises another question — how many elections are too many?
That’s a question some Illinoisans will be confronting in the next few months because a group of politicians, mostly conservatives and Republicans, believe voters here ought to have the option of recalling elected officials.
Local state Sen. Jason Barickman has proposed an amendment to the Illinois Constitution that would provide voters the recall option. It is going nowhere in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
At the same time, the Illinois Opportunity Project recently announced that it is overseeing a petition drive to put an advisory referendum on the 2022 ballot that would ask voters their opinion on the issue.
This is not the first time the recall issue has reared its ugly head in Illinois. Just a few years ago, legislators pressed for recall legislation for the office of governor. Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, an opponent of recall, ultimately allowed recall legislation to pass, but the proposal is so larded up with regulations that it is virtually impossible to get the question on the ballot.
Like so many other good government issues in Illinois — campaign funding disclosure, ethics rules — Illinois recall legislation represents the illusion of reform, not the real thing.
That raises a third question — is recalling elected officials, however high their station, really a good government reform or a wolf masquerading in sheep’s clothing. In other words, when regular elections already are part of the democratic fabric, how much of a benefit is a costly, divisive recall election?
This kind of reform is one of a series of initiatives that grew out of the progressive political movement of the early 1900s. They were designed to give citizens a more direct role in our representative form of government. Some ideas — the direct election of U.S. senators — were better than others — California’s initiative process leads to ballot confusion and policy chaos.
But what about recall? It’s aimed at angry voters, those who never liked the target of the recall and those who have become disillusioned with the target of the recall.
But here’s the problem. Those who never liked the recall target had their chance and lost. Those who never liked or have grown to dislike the recall target will have another chance at the next regularly scheduled election.
The Illinois advocates of recall argue that one of its benefits is that it gives voters the opportunity to oust corrupt officials. They cite, among others, Democratic state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges.
There are two problems with the Cullerton example. He has yet to be convicted. His trial is scheduled for early next year. The second is that he’s already scheduled to be on the ballot in 2022 because of a regularly scheduled election.
Did Illinois need recall to rid itself of George Ryan because of his legal troubles? No, he read the public opinion polls and retired from politics on his own. Did Illinois need recall to rid itself of Rod Blagojevich? No, he was impeached and removed from office.
Recall is a messy business, one driven more by irrational anger than rational thought. It may be entertaining to watch other states go through occasional spasms of political rage, but it’s not much of a solution to this state’s many serious political and policy problems.