Recall elections are an electoral device in American politics which allow citizens to remove an elected official from office before the end of that person’s term in office. Like initiatives and referendum, recall elections are considered an extension of democracy in that they allow citizens to hold elected officials to account after they have been elected and during their term in office.
Those who wish to remove an official need to raise a petition with the names of typically 25% of the number of people who voted for that official in the previous election.
Once 25% of the required names have been collected, a special election is held. If the majority of those who vote want that official to be removed, then this takes place. The person who succeeds this official can be voted for in the special election or can be elected at a subsequent election.
Fourteen state constitutions allow for recall elections for elected state officials and many more for locally elected officials.
Such elections, or the possibility of them, extend the democratic procedure as they mean that local (and some state) elected officials need to be continuously responsible and responsive to public opinion. However, though the threat of recall elections is there, they are rarely used in America. This could be due to apathy on the part of locals or lack of knowledge that they exist. If over 50% of Americas are unaware that their state has an individual state constitution, then it is likely that the same number might not know about recall elections.
Recall elections do not apply to federal elections but both houses of Congress have the right to remove officials who do meet the standards required by Congress. Likewise, the president and the vice-president are subject to impeachment procedures if Congress deems this necessary.
Recalls, initiatives and referendums are aspects of direct democracy. Recalls do not require accusations of illegal acts – they can be used if an official is considered to be incompetent. However, when they have been used, voter turn out has been small. In Michigan in 1984, a tax increase was overturned by the use of a recall election removing some of the officials who voted for that tax increase.
However, though recall, in theory, is direct democracy at its purest, it also calls into question the whole issue of democracy if the recall vote to overturn elected officials is less or much less than the vote that elected those officials into power.