Recall: When Officeholders Don't Fulfill Their Obligations

The recall is a direct democracatic procedure that provides for removal of elected officials before their terms expire.

In most circumstances, a petition drive is held to collect a statutory number of signatures from registered voters. If sufficient valid signatures are verified, the matter is placed on the ballot and submitted to the electorate. Depending upon the election results, the official in question is either allowed to complete his term or is removed from office. One of the general principles of recall is that a certain period of grace exists between the election and the start of a recall effort, usually around six months.

The Los Angeles city charter of 1903 was the first in the United States to adopt the recall. In 1908, Oregon became the first state to approve the practice. Today 11 states and hundreds of local governments include recall provisions in their constitutions or charters.

The concept of recall generated great controversy with respect to recalling of the judiciary. President William Howard Taft vetoed the act that would have admitted Arizona to the Union because its proposed constitution included a provision making judges subject to recall. The provision was removed, but a year after Arizona was admitted, it was restored to the Arizona constitution.

In addition, the recall process was attacked as unconstitutional, since it substituted a dangerous form of direct democratic governance in place of more conservative, reprsentative republican institutions. History has shown these concerns to be unfounded.


The recall, along with the referendum and initiative, won public attention because of the Populist Party platforms of the 1890s and were advanced as means to stimulate unresponsive government.