You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Problem with the Wisconsin Recall Elections

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood] 

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic lauds the Wisconsin recall vote as an exercise in the “ruthless art of democracy.” Closer to toothless, it turns out, as the Democrats fell short of regaining the senate, taking back only two of the six seats they challenged. But regardless of the result, these recall elections haven’t affirmed, but undermined democratic values.

Yesterday’s recalls were supposed to serve as referenda on Scott Walker’s controversial union busting law. Already this year mass protests in Madison, and a coordinated state house walk-out by Democratic legislators didn’t get the job done. So this is three strikes and the Democrats are out of luck. But that doesn’t mean these elections actually had much to do with public opinion of Scott Walker or state-wide Republican policies in general.

Wisconsin—one of 19 states that allows recalls—forbids recalling a governor or state congressman until he or she has been in office for a year. That means neither Scott Walker nor any of the Republican congressmen who swept both chambers of the state house in 2010 can be challenged until 2012. Instead, the Republican senators who faced recall votes were elected in 2008, and are not mirror images of Scott Walker, and merely happen to legislate in districts vulnerable to democratic sway, where enough votes were collected to warrant a challenge.

More importantly, the elections themselves have not been entirely focused on the collective bargaining law, but largely with local squabbles and moral failings. Randy Hopper, one of the two Republicans who lost yesterday, was plagued with questions about an extra-marital affair with a younger woman and just how she got her government job. Conservative religious group Wisconsin Family Action ran an ad attacking Democrat Fred Clark—who lost narrowly—for running a red light and hitting a biker. Another ad played a recording of Clark saying he wanted to ‘smack around’ a woman who wouldn’t vote for him.

Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me “the recalls in the end were not so much about Scott Walker…but more about character issues, whether the candidates were good people.” In the biker-ad election, Burden says the attack ads “made the difference” in a 52%-48% victory.

The other big problem with the Wisconsin recall is that because it happened independently of the regular election cycle and drew a lot of national attention, it drove extraordinarily high spending from out of state groups who have no stake in Wisconsin-specific policies. Burden says advocacy groups from out of state ran ads about “veterans and giving tuition breaks to undocumented aliens—things that hadn’t even come up in the legislature this year.” Because of such a big outside spending push, the Democrats’ well-coordinated grassroots campaign ended up being less successful than it might have been in a general, less high-profile election.

There’s no problem with recalling an elected official who’s not doing his job—that was a key charge against the three Wisconsin Democrats up for recall who bolted Madison for Illinois after Walker proposed his bill. But when a recall over a specific issue turns into a battleground for general ideology and partisan bickering, the original conceit of the frustration—Scott Walker’s policies—gets lost in the shuffle. And as Republicans will return to office with at least a 17-16 majority and full control of the general assembly, we’re right back where we started.