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Next up for Wisconsin: the mother of all recall drives

After Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill to limit collective bargaining for many public unions, efforts are afoot to recall 16 state senators – eight from each party – by the summer.

By Staff writer / March 14, 2011

Republican Wisconsin state Sen. Robert Cowles (c.), seen here in the Senate chambers on Feb. 22, is one of 16 state senators facing a recall effort.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP/File



The partisan fight over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin is moving from the streets of Madison toward the ballot box.

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A recall drive of unprecedented scale is underway, with 32 efforts targeting 16 state senators involved in the three-week budget standoff between Senate Republicans and Democrats. In the 103 years since Oregon first adopted the recall process, only 13 state legislators have been recalled nationwide.

The campaigns – against eight Republicans and eight Democrats – have been infused with money and energy from outside the state, making the movement “a national event” that could drive momentum for similar efforts in other states, says Joshua Spivak, an expert on recall history at the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform in New York.

Others agree that the Wisconsin recall drive is unique in American history. “In Wisconsin, nothing like this has ever happened; in terms of the US, nothing comes close to such a wholesale effort,” says Greg Magarian, an election law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker ended the standoff by signing into law a measure that eliminated collective bargaining from all non-law-enforcement public sector unions – a move his party says will help better state budget woes, but that critics say amounts to nothing more than union busting. Wisconsin recall law prevents him from being subject to a recall until 2012.

Democratic senators are being criticized for fleeing the state for several weeks to prevent Republicans from having a quorum to vote on a budget bill. Republican senators are being criticized for removing the collective-bargaining provision from the budget bill through a controversial legislative maneuver and then passing the provision as a separate bill without a quorum.

The mother of all recall drives

Recall efforts are seldom used, and when they are, they typically fail because of the money needed to mobilize petition drives and to defend the validity of the signatures in court, Mr. Magarian says.

But the organizational help from outside the state could help, says Mr. Spivak. “The money is there and the will is there. Which makes it an unusual situation compared to the past but it may not be unusual compared to the future,” Mr. Spivak says.

Wisconsin makes it easy for outside forces to get involved in recall efforts. According to the state’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees campaign finance, elections, ethics, and lobbying laws, only one person from each recall committee is required to reside in the district of the legislator who is the target of the recall.


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