Saturday, 14 September 2013

Total recall

In the coming months, the UK is set to enact a right to recall elected politicians. But the American example shows this may not be the boon to democracy it appears.

Recently, the disgraceful tale of a Scottish politician refusing to resign in the face of 23 (yes, 23) separate domestic abuse convictions has revived talk in the UK of that old populist hobby-horse – the right to recall.

Bill Walker, a Scottish National Party member of the Scottish Parliament (pictured below), was convicted last month of a series of domestic abuse offenses against three different ex wives and a stepdaughter over three decades.

Though he was expelled from the SNP after the conviction, for weeks Walker refused to vacate his seat – and there was nothing the SNP or the Scottish Parliament could do to make him leave. As the British media examined the bizarre situation, those who advocate establishing a citizen's recall law in the UK came out in force to argue that this disgraceful state of affairs makes their case.

“This is the most powerful argument yet for a power of recall,” argued the Liberal Democrats, who have long championed the issue. The Walker case “strengthens UKIP's policy of a right to recall so constituency members can be removed from office,” insisted the UK Independence Party.

In fact there are few British politicians now who will come out against the idea of a recall. The Conservatives plan to introduce a recall law by the end of this year, largely based on the pressure of their coalition partners the Lib Dems.

But many are arguing that the Tory proposal sets the bar for a recall too high and would therefore make it still nearly impossible for citizens recall a politician. Under the proposal, only a jail term or a Commons committee ruling could trigger a recall election – not voters. Lib Dems want citizens to be given the right to trigger a recall by gathering enough signatures, like in the United States. Politicians shouldn't be the one policing politicians, the argument goes.

Certainly a situation where a parliament cannot expel a member even after he has committed such misdeeds is in need of reform. But the Lib Dems should think twice before they demand petition-triggered recalls. Experience in America has shown that rather than giving power to the people, petition-driven recalls have become an easily manipulated tool of special interests.

America’s recall madness

Recall policy in America varies by state. States on the West Coast and in the upper Midwest tend to have very low bars to triggering recalls by petition. Some of the more notorious recalls of the last decade have been the 2003 recall election that put action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in power and made Ariana Huffington a household name, and last year’s failed recall effort against union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Recall elections in the US have, in fact, increased in frequency and impact at a jaw-dropping speed recently. Over the past 100 years, state officials have been put up for recall 38 times. Half of those were within the past two years.

This week saw a recall election in Colorado that made more than a few heads turn. On Tuesday John Morse, president of the Colorado state Senate, and Angela Giron, another state senator, were voted out of office in a special recall election. Their crime? Backing a package of minimal gun-control measures in February. The legislation tightened background checks and banned magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. Polling showed that these measures enjoyed widespread public support in Colorado.

The two Democrats were replaced by Republicans who are strongly in favour of gun rights and strongly against abortion rights.

The intention was clear: send a signal to state legislators across the country that if they take measures against guns, the National Rifle Association will organise recalls against them. The NRA poured at least $360,000 into this recall election. John Caldera, one of the organisers of the recall drive, candidly told supporters after it succeeded that the result would send “"a wave of fear that runs across every state legislator across the country". The Economist this week called the recall result “a blow for advocates of gun restrictions and, perhaps, democracy across the country.”

So if the gun restrictions enjoyed such widespread public support, why were the state senators that devised them turfed out of office by the public?

The answer is that this wasn’t ‘the public’ by any stretch of the imagination. Only 50,000 people turned out to vote in these two recall elections - roughly 13% of registered voters. Mid-term elections are notoriously easy to manipulate by special interests as they bring out only the most impassioned and angry voters. Most people in the district are unaware these special elections are even taking place.

Recalls were meant to turf politicians out of office if they have committed misdeeds. But over the past several years both Republicans and Democrats have organised recall petitions because they object to policies the elected politicians were pursuing. In Colorado it was the emotive issue of guns that turned out the right. In Wisconsin, it was the emotive issue of labor unions that turned out the left.

But here’s the difference: if recalls become the new normal in American politics, it will be because Republicans have calculated that recalls give them a natural advantage. Generally speaking, Republicans win recalls, and Democrats lose. Low turnouts usually mean more older voters, who vote Republican. High turnouts mean more younger voters, who vote Democratic. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow observed this week:
“It’s because of a basic fact of voting life. More people voting, better for Democrats, fewer people voting, better for Republicans.”
 

It’s no mystery why smaller parties like the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens would want British voters to be given the ability to call byelections through a recall. It’s a natural advantage for a party that doesn’t enjoy majority support of the district as a whole. If you can engineer a smaller turnout with only the most impassioned voters through a sort of ‘stealth’ election that most people may not even be aware of, it works to the natural advantage of smaller parties.

Both of the districts from which the Democrats were turfed out of office lean heavily Democratic – last year Obama bested Romney in John Morse’s district by 58% to 39%. But with only 13% of registered voters turning out to vote in the special election to recall Morse, it was mainly Republicans who turned out.

The British should think long and hard about whether this is really how they want democracy to function in the UK. Things like recalls and referendums may seem lovely in the abstract, but experience shows that they are easily manipulated by special interests. And this can hardly be said to be a benefit to the citizens of a democracy.

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