The statistic most commonly cited in media coverage about the Wisconsin recall is that this is just the third gubernatorial recall in US history (the other two being the 2003 recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, and the 1921 recall of North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier).
But while gubernatorial recalls may be rare, the number of recalls taking place in state and local jurisdictions has been sharply rising of late.
According to Joshua Spivak's Recall Elections Blog, a total of 103 recalls have either taken place, been scheduled, or already forced a resignation in 17 different states so far this year, with 17 of them taking place Tuesday (six in Wisconsin, six in California, and five in Oregon). This puts 2012 on track to beat 2011, which saw a total of 151 recalls, resulting in 85 removals.
Why the recent spike? In a recent article for The Atlantic, Mr. Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., points the finger primarily at technology. In the past, the biggest hurdle for a recall effort was the cost of gathering signatures. But social media is changing that game dramatically.
We would also suggest that the rise in recalls says something about the nation's increasingly polarized and bitter politics. At a time when partisanship in America is at a 25-year high, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center, it seems entirely unsurprising that recalls have become a more popular political tool – particularly since, as Spivak bluntly puts it, "they work." While incumbents typically have a strong advantage in regular elections, their rate of survival when it comes to recalls is much lower.
Indeed, perhaps the only thing preventing a coast-to-coast explosion of recalls these days is the fact that most states still don't allow them. According to the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, just 19 states allow recalls for governors and other state officeholders. In eight of those states, there must be evidence of something like malfeasance or ethical violations for a recall to take place. But in 11 states, recalls can be held for purely political reasons. And those types of recalls are happening with greater and greater frequency.