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The Right Is Now Weaponizing Recall Elections at Every Level of Government

Normalizing recalls of elected officials makes good governance all but impossible.

A campaign sign opposing the recall election for Kshama Sawant is seen on a light pole in Seattle, Washington, on December 5, 2021.

Election recall efforts have recently become firmly entrenched in the political playbooks of the right. In Nevada, Republicans began recall campaigns against three state senators in 2017. This year, in Colorado alone, 10 Democratic state legislators are now facing recall efforts. Across the country, progressive legislators, governors and municipal officials are staring down conservative efforts to remove them.

There was a moment this fall that — in a calmer political moment — could have served as a breaking point for the right-wing use of recall campaigns to target progressive elected officials. In mid-September, California voters overwhelmingly rejected a recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom. In a rational political climate, that defeat of the campaign to evict the most high-profile liberal governor in the U.S. could have given pause to the notion that conservatives can relitigate elections that they have lost fair and square.

But the U.S. isn’t in a rational or a calm moment. Since November 2020, Donald Trump has relentlessly pushed his conspiracy theory that the presidential election was stolen from him, and, as he locks down control over the GOP, he has used fealty to this conspiracy theory as a litmus test for candidates up and down the ballot. These days, fed a relentless diet of far right conspiracy theories from Fox News and other conservative journalistic outlets, from social media feeds and from political leaders, two-thirds of GOP voters believe that President Joe Biden stole what was rightfully a Trump victory.

The results are increasingly toxic to the democratic political process, and they aren’t limited to the presidential election.

Trump’s baseline argument, now adhered to by a growing part of the GOP, is essentially that anytime a Republican candidate loses, or a progressive Democrat wins, it is the result of fraud and malfeasance. As a result, Republicans are looking to any and every method to undermine election results mid-stream. These tactics range from trying to stop results being certified; to reimagining state laws so as to criminalize the actions of nonpartisan election officials and make it easier for partisan figures to take over the running of election counts; to running “Stop-the-Steal” candidates as a way to gain control over election oversight positions. Increasingly, conservatives are pushing recall elections in the hope that they can motivate their base to come out in high numbers to vote to oust candidates whom they know they can’t beat during a regular, high-turnout, high-interest election.

In California, progressive-leaning district attorneys in both San Francisco and Los Angeles are facing well-funded efforts to recall them in 2022. School board members in San Francisco are also facing recall, as is Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin. In the far north of the state, Republican Shasta County Supervisor Leonard Moty is being targeted from the right by groups who believe he isn’t conservative enough, and are therefore working to recall him. Two other members of the five-member county board are also facing recalls for abiding by Governor Newsom’s pandemic public health orders.

Further up the Pacific Coast, in Seattle, council member Kshama Sawant, a revolutionary socialist who has been in the national spotlight for years for her unapologetically radical stances, faced a recall effort earlier this month and appears to have escaped recall with razor-thin margins in the polls. Her campaign is referring to the results as an “apparent victory,” and the Recall Sawant campaign has admitted that the recall push “will likely fall short of removing Sawant from office.”

Sawant had been accused by billionaire-funded opponents of using a couple thousand dollars of city resources to promote a Tax Amazon initiative (she settled with the city’s ethics commission earlier this year by paying a small fine). She was also accused of opening City Hall up to racial justice protesters on contravention of COVID-19 public health restrictions (she acknowledges opening City Hall but denies she violated local ordinances in so doing); and of leading protesters to the mayor’s house, despite the mayor’s address being confidential (she acknowledges that she took part in the march but denies that she was leading it). Sawant has not been charged in criminal court with any crimes, and her supporters argue that she has been targeted for recall not because she has erred ethically, but because she has long been a voice for Seattle’s marginalized populations.

On the other side of the continent, in Virginia, three progressive district attorneys and a state senator are all caught up in recall campaigns against them.

In the country as a whole, Ballotpedia is now tracking recall efforts against more than 200 school board members — an all-time high.

Around all of these recalls is the swirl of national political debates about hot-button issues, such as racial justice, public health responses to the COVID pandemic, the removal of Confederate monuments, and education policy.

George Gascón and Chesa Boudin, the high-profile DAs of Los Angeles and San Francisco, are facing a right-wing backlash for reorienting their offices away from decades of racist tough-on-crime priorities and toward more emphasis on rehabilitation, social services and accountability for rogue police officers.

In San Francisco, school board members are facing a backlash for educational priorities that include renaming schools during the pandemic, instead of pushing measures to permit schools to reopen sooner, and for restructuring the school system away from gifted programs and magnet institutions. In Los Angeles, Bonin, who represents Venice Beach and the surrounding coastal communities, is under attack for not demolishing vast homeless encampments and driving unhoused people from the picturesque tourist hub. In Virginia, State Senator Louise Lucas, a Black woman, is facing a recall effort pushed by local conservatives after she participated in protests against a local statue memorializing the Confederacy, shortly after the murder of George Floyd.

One doesn’t have to agree with all — or even any — of the specific policies pushed by the political figures who are facing recalls to see how dangerous the weaponized recall process now is. If this tactic continues to prove effective, ultimately, anyone with a political grudge and a wellspring of financial resources will come to see recalls as a legitimate way to keep opponents off balance and unable to focus on their policy agendas.

The right’s weaponization of the recall has twisted it into a go-to anti-democratic mechanism for political targeting. Democracies are structured with the expectation that voters who don’t like a politician and the priorities they push will vote them out of office next time there is a scheduled election. But the right is seeking to subvert this system by trying to oust politicians when elections aren’t scheduled, seeking to take advantage of arcane recall processes originally intended to pull the plug on politicians convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Normalizing recalls makes good governance all but impossible. It means that officials, rather than focusing on public policy, always have to focus on insulating themselves from the wrath of a billionaire-funded recall-mob. It means that politicians have to always assume they could face a career-destroying election a few months down the road. Lastly, it means that political parties and well-funded interest groups, with the means to secure enough signatures to get a recall effort qualified for the ballot, can always seek a do-over of elections that they have lost, but the results of which they refuse to accept.

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