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Commentary: Don't Undermine Voters' Right to Recall

(Editor's Note: This article first appeared in The Detroit Free Press on Dec. 11, 2011.)

The most important political divide is not between Democrat and Republican, but between the people and those who govern them. After last month's recall of state Rep. Paul Scott, R-Grand Blanc, don't be surprised if lawmakers now unite in bipartisan harmony to restrict the people's right to recall any of them from office.

Just such a measure has been introduced by a Democrat in the Michigan House. Republicans control substantial majorities in both the House and the Senate, but they will need help from Democrats to pass it. That's because recalls are a constitutional right in Michigan, and the Legislature cannot propose an amendment to the people without a two-thirds vote of each chamber.

Recalls are rare but powerful. A lawmaker faces a recall election if citizens numbering 25% of those voting in the last gubernatorial election in the district sign a legally approved recall petition. If a majority of voters in the next election cast ballots to recall the official, the seat is vacated whether or not the lawmaker's term is up.

The measure would not eliminate recalls, but would significantly restrict the reasons for which residents may recall their lawmakers.

The amendment would do two things. It would erase 20 words from our Constitution that affirm the sufficiency of pure "political" reasons to trigger a recall election. And it would add 101 words of restrictions that limit the reasons for which voters may recall their lawmakers.

The political reasons that motivated Scott's recent recall and the only other recalls in nearly three decades -- those of two Senate Democrats in 1983 -- would be gone. In their place would be a list of permissible reasons, including legal convictions for crimes and civil infractions, and corrupt use of resources.

It's as if lawmakers are saying, "Unless you catch us and convict us doing something illegal, you can't recall us anymore."

Illegal activity is certainly a good reason to recall a lawmaker, but the people and the Legislature already have that power. The Constitution allows the Legislature to impeach its members at any time "for corrupt conduct in office or for crimes or misdemeanors."

Proponents of the amendment will argue that politics alone should not trigger a recall election. They will assert that it is unfair and unwise to subject a lawmaker to recall based solely on his or her votes and views. But the delegates to the 1963 Constitutional Convention considered and ultimately rejected that rationale.

Consider these statements from that convention:

  • "But let me remind you that there is no vested right in the office to which a person has been elected. ... It is not a matter of contract merely because you've been elected to that office."
  • "Like the initiative and the referendum, this is the right of the electorate to ... recall elective officers without giving reasons."
  • "The burden of getting the signatures and getting people to sign for this purpose has proved to be a very adequate deterrent to any vexatious or spurious recall movements."

Nothing unites lawmakers more than making it easier to stay in office. Republican and Democrat legislators will likely tell their respective supporters that the amendment gives their party an advantage over the other, for one reason or another. The historical record does not bear this out.

What the historical record does show is that, over time, government has grown considerably at the expense of the people and their personal liberties. Government's growth has been a verifiably bipartisan project.

The voters' right to recall lawmakers, for expressly political reasons, is a potent check against government overreach that the people should jealously guard irrespective of party.

Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.