Campaign operatives may be able to guess why 1983 is a good jumping off point for the recall—it was one of the earliest years of the modern technological revolution that has transformed fundraising and campaigning over the past 25 years.
Historically, the time and labor intensive tasks of signature-gathering and defending petitions in court have made the recall more of a threat than a useful device. Before the recall of Davis, for instance, there had been 31 failed attempts to recall a California governor. Technology has sliced those costs down to a much more manageable size.
On the campaign front, emerging and existing communications technologies—everything from social media to smartphones to that original killer app, the spreadsheet, have made organizing and running signature gathering efforts significantly easier. Finding the right audience for your recall efforts has gone from an art to a science.
The recall has piggybacked on the success of its direct democracy cousin, the ubiquitous initiative. Getting initiatives on the ballot has grown into an actual industry with a collection of political firms and consultants solely dedicated to the specialty. The recall has used the same methods and the same signature gathering operations.
Of course, this is just one part of the technology boom. The ability to disseminate news and opinions quickly, cheaply and efficiently, has managed to channel and enflame voter opinion and at times, such as in Wisconsin, nationalize political races that in the past no one would care about. Thirty years ago, would anyone in the rest of the country have noted the goings-on in Wisconsin? Now, it’s a national life-and-death political struggle for unions and conservative groups.
There’s also a tactical reason to use the recall—it works. As with most special elections, voter turnout for recalls is generally lower and the more motivated party has a distinct advantage in the race. Notice that of those 20 state legislators who faced the recall before this year, 13 were kicked out of office.
Despite the boom, and despite the serious money that is sometimes thrown around in recall elections, we have not seen the development of a cottage industry of political consultants specializing in recalls just yet. It may not be far off, though.
Since the most important part of the recall is getting on the ballot, we might expect that initiative specialists would be able to jump on the recall bandwagon. There’s also a market for large D.C.-based consultancies, several of which were involved in the recent spate of recalls in Wisconsin.
The recall was practically dormant for a century before it came onto the political scene, but after proving the contests can attract big money, national attention and electoral success, don’t expect the recall to be dormant for the next.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and blogs at http://recallelections.blogspot.com