What would a recall mean for Arizona? - Open Primaries Arizona
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What would a recall mean for Arizona?

Posted by Patrick McWhortor on September 03, 2015 at 5:16 PM

What would a recall mean for Arizona?

Diane Douglas

This week, opponents of Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas filed paperwork to officially begin a recall attempt against the Superintendent.

While this would be the first recall of someone holding this office, Arizona has experience with recalling other elected officials at the state level. In 2011, voters in Mesa tossed from office State Senator Russell Pearce after his controversial leadership of anti-immigration legislation. Memorably, in the late 1980’s Governor Evan Mecham was the subject of a recall attempt, stopped short only because the state legislature convicted him of impeachment charges first.

Clearly, the people of Arizona, armed with progressive democratic tools (recall, referendum and initiative) installed in our State Constitution more than 100 years ago, are not afraid to hold their elected officials accountable after the regular election.

But what does this latest news mean for the people of Arizona in 2015? What does the beginning of a recall movement yet again signal about the state of affairs in government and politics in our state? And what does this mean for our movement for democratic reform?

First, let’s remember that pulling off a recall election is not easy. The Douglas recall organizers must collect more than 360,000 valid signatures within four months in order to force a recall election. That is a huge challenge. Nobody takes on a challenge like that unless they are deeply frustrated by the conduct of an incumbent elected official.

So the Douglas recall movement is an indication that the Superintendent has intense opposition among voters. Her opponents are so frustrated, they are willing to take on the 360,000 signature challenge. Voters do not do this for every elected official they disagree with. Something different is happening here. This leads me to the second point:

Diane Douglas was elected last fall during an election with the second lowest turnout in Arizona history. She narrowly won the election despite the fact that she hardly made any campaign appearances throughout the 2014 election season.

So the experience during the past year with Diane Douglas reveals two underlying dynamics of today’s politics in Arizona: 1) political candidates who don’t feel the need to appeal to all voters, and 2) intense reactions from voters when those candidates, once in office, do not represent the people.

Of course, these two dynamics are not exclusive to the Douglas recall. These are the same problems that cripple governance in Arizona, and for that matter, in Washington DC.

And it is in this environment of democratic dysfunction that people take matters into their own hands and, in this case, launch a recall movement.

Now, let’s finish with the most significant fact about the recall election relevant to our movement at Open Primaries Arizona:

If the Douglas opponents are successful in forcing a recall election, which presumably would be conducted sometime in 2016, the voters will receive a nonpartisan ballot. Yes, under Arizona law, recall elections are nonpartisan. That is an important distinction from the regular partisan elections that helped spawn this situation in 2014.

Let’s take a close look at why a nonpartisan recall election is significant.

Remember the Russell Pearce recall in Mesa in 2011? It’s important to understand how that happened. Pearce had been sparking controversy for several years, yet the voters in his Mesa district continued to re-elect him. Why? Because in his gerrymandered strongly Republican majority district, Pearce only needed to rally a small number of Republican voters in the low turnout primary election, then skate to re-election in the November general election, when Democratic voters were dramatically outnumbered.

But in his recall election, Pearce had to face all the voters in a nonpartisan race. Every candidate – Pearce, his major Republican opponent, Democratic opposition – all appeared on the same ballot. And you can see what happened. When voters were given all choices on the same ballot in the recall election, they soundly defeated Pearce, electing another Republican instead.

Fast forward to 2016 and a possible Diane Douglas recall election, and you will see a nonpartisan race with anybody willing to oppose Douglas, regardless of party, on the same ballot. We have no idea, of course, who those candidates will be, how they will position themselves, and how Douglas will choose to defend herself. But we do know that the dynamics of that recall election will be very different than the dynamics of the partisan primary elections of 2014 that led to Douglas’ election in the first place.

So the Douglas recall movement could offer us another example of what happens in Arizona when party control of elections is removed and candidates are required to answer to all voters.

We should be watching this recall effort very closely because it could provide us another case study at Open Primaries Arizona. Like the Pearce recall, we could see once again what happens when all voters participate equally in elections and elected officials are held accountable to all the people they represent.