JACK SPENCER: Michigan’s recall law makes reforms tougher

It now looks like the effort by labor unions to remove Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from office will fail. On Tuesday, Walker will face Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall election. Polls show Walker leading in the race by what appears to be a growing margin.

In Michigan, the dynamics of a recall are totally different from what’s occurring in the Badger state. In Wisconsin, an official or lawmaker being recalled faces an alternative candidate in an election and voters decide which one they prefer. Not so in Michigan, where only the name of the official or lawmaker facing recall appears on the ballot.

It’s no secret that, from the voters’ point of view, a majority of elections come down to a choice between the lesser of two evils. When an official or lawmaker in Michigan is up for recall he or she essentially has to run against themselves. It’s the evil the voters know versus nobody.

Under the Wisconsin recall system, voters are forced to make a choice between the challenger’s positions on issues and those of the officeholder. This tends to galvanize the recall elections around the key issues that brought about the recall in the first place. That’s not always the case with Michigan’s system.

Michigan’s style of recall election can yield a valid outcomes only when it clearly becomes a referendum over a specific issue, such as a lawmaker having voted for a tax hike or some other measure. But when the reasons for the recall become mixed and varied – either intentionally or inadvertently -–the initial purpose for the recall becomes blurred.

A case in point would be last November’s successful recall of former House Education Committee Chair Paul Scott. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) paid for and orchestrated the Scott recall. It did so because Scott was an outspoken advocate for getting rid of union advantages in the K-12 system. These changes, coupled with an alleged cut in funding ($100 per student from an average of $11,987, when federal dollars are included) led to the ongoing war between the GOP and the MEA. The Scott recall was part of that war.

As stated in a previous column, the Scott recall election was compromised by the late interference by the courts and the narrow (about 300 vote) margin by which it was decided. However, even if the courts hadn’t interfered and the margin had been greater, the election result would have failed to resolve the core question. Simply put, it would not have revealed whether a majority of voters in Scott’s district agreed or disagreed with him about the K-12 issues.

The point is that – even if a healthy majority of the voters in Scott’s district agreed with him on the K-12 issues, they still could have been given the boot for any number of unrelated reasons. In fact, the MEA petition to recall Scott listed his support of the so-called pension tax along with the K-12 cuts as the reason he should be recalled. This was ironic because, without the so-called pension tax, really deep cuts to K-12 funding would surely have been necessary.

Scott’s constituents could have voted against him over the K-12 issue, the pension tax, just because they didn’t like how things were going in general, or – you name it.

This is the aspect of Michigan’s recall law that mitigates against reforms. Opponents of reforms can remove lawmakers from office, even when they represent a minority viewpoint on the issue that sparked the recall. That could also happen under the Wisconsin system; but it’s not as likely to.

The context of this article is not the new effort the recall Gov. Rick Snyder, although some of the same dynamics would apply. Chances of the Snyder recall succeeding seem very dim.

Instead the context of this article is the effect Michigan’s recall law has on legislators. When a lawmaker can be successfully recalled for making votes that represent the majority view of his or her district; it has to be intimidating. As a consequence, there’s a tendency to avoid taking on the really big issues – such as Right-to-Work.

After the events of the past year, it will be amazing if the legislature doesn’t take a good hard look at changing Michigan’s recall process. In fact, measures have already been introduced in the legislature to change it. One of these would make Michigan’s recall process mirror that of Wisconsin. Another, however, would virtually eliminate all recalls – which would be going too far.

None of these measures could become law without a super-majority two-thirds vote by both the House and Senate. A vote like that could be almost impossible to get. But if it were to happen the voters would have the final say in a statewide election.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.

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Posted by Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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