On its face, the widespread Democratic opposition to recall elections—not just the ones of September 10 but of all potential recalls not directly related to official misconduct—is a paradox. The Democrats usually support more democratic action, and recalls are an obvious instance of democratic voting, so what do Democrats have against them?
It’s understandable why Democrats opposed the recalls of September 10, as they resulted in the recall of two Democratic state senators (John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo). Is the Democratic position against recalls just a matter of convenience due to the fact that those being recalled during this cycle were Democrats? Would the same Democrats who opposed recall elections this time tout the virtues of them if it were a Republican facing recall?
That would hardly be the first time that partisans used “arguments” they don’t really believe to buttress their party cheerleading. For example, many of the Democrats who blasted George W. Bush and Mitt Romney over their military policies—including Joe Biden—now support Barack Obama’s comparable military proposals in Syria, and vice versa with Republicans.
Although I think some Democrats argued against recalls purely as a matter of partisan convenience, I don’t think that’s the main reason most Democrats opposed politically motivated recalls in general. Instead, most Democrats who argued against recall elections think they’re always a bad idea. But why do they think that?
An “Abuse of the Process”?
As I’ve written before, some people claim that recalls (except in cases of official misconduct) are inherently abusive. Giron suggested that the recall constituted an “abuse of the law.” Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said of the recall, “It’s an abuse of the recall process to use it against people who voted against the way you wanted them to.” The leftist web page ColoradoPols.com published an article by Jason Salzman making the same claim. The Denver Post claimed that the Morse’s recall “is an abuse of political process”—as well as “unhealthy” and “ugly.”
But, as I have pointed out, the Colorado Constitution explicitly allows for ideologically motivated recall elections. The language of the Constitution is worth reviewing:
[A recall] petition shall contain a general statement . . . of the ground or grounds on which such recall is sought, . . . and the registered electors shall be the sole and exclusive judges of the legality, reasonableness and sufficiency of such ground or grounds assigned for such recall, and said ground or grounds shall not be open to review.
Certainly those who drafted the state’s foundational document did not regard politically motivated recalls as abusive or ugly; they positively welcomed them.
So those who claim that politically motivated recalls are inherently abusive need to turn somewhere other than the state’s constitution to support their claims. They have not done so. I have seen plenty of arbitrary pronouncements about how politically motivated recalls are supposedly abusive, but I have seen no actual argument to that effect. Therefore, we can dismiss such claims as unserious.
(Incidentally, Dave Kopel argues that Morse and Giron indeed abused their official positions. He writes, “ When Morse and Giron squelched the testimony of law-abiding citizens and of law-enforcing Sheriffs, they grossly abused their constitutional office of being law-makers.” But none of the supporters of Morse and Giron would accept Kopel’s position.)
So then what are the real reasons many Democrats oppose recall elections?
Recalls Favor Deeply Committed Voters
The reason Democrats dislike recall elections—particularly when they involve a clash over guns—is that fewer people tend to vote in them. Thus, recall elections tend to favor voters with deeply held beliefs and strong political commitments—the type of voters who will go out of their way to participate in an election on an unusual day involving a single race.
Turning to the election results, for 2010 we find that Angela Giron beat Vera Ortegon by 22,834 to 18,814 votes, for a total of 41,648 votes. And we find that John Morse beat Owen Hill by 13,451 votes to 13,199 votes—with 1,258 votes for the Libertarian (a factor that may have swung the race)—for a total of 27,908 votes.
For the 2013 recall election, we find that both Giron and Morse lost, with vote totals of 34,556 and 17,845, respectively. In other words, voter turnout was 17 percent less for Giron’s seat and 36 percent less for Morse’s seat.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, offers the (frankly comical) explanation that the difference was the result of “voter suppression.” The actual explanation for at least much of the difference is that, in 2010, Coloradans voted on several high-profile races, including those for U.S. Senate and governor, and that drove higher turnout. This is not surprising in a country in which the large majority of people cannot name their state legislators. (Undoubtedly name recognition for Giron and Morse is higher than average in their districts because of the recalls.)
Schultz is right that the recall elections did not use mail-in ballots and that voter turnout was consequently somewhat lower than it would have been otherwise. (Whether the use of mail-in ballots would have made the difference in either of the races is anyone’s guess.) However, Schultz is wrong to claim that the lack of mail-in ballots constituted “voter suppression,” and she is wrong that it came about because of “lawsuits filed by opponents of common sense [sic] gun reform.” Instead, the reason that mail-in ballots could not be used is that the Colorado Constitution says that “a candidate [had] up to 15 days before the Sept. 10 election date to submit signatures so that their name appears on the ballot”—a time frame that did not allow for mail-in ballots—and the Libertarian Party sued to enforce that provision.
Had all Colorado officials ignored the state’s constitution—as many Democrats did in passing a conflicting voting measure earlier this year—that would have deprived the Libertarian Party of its ability to try to get their candidates on the ballot. That would have been actual “voter suppression,” for voters would have been denied their constitutional ability to sign petitions for alternate candidates. The fact that Schultz advocates voter suppression in the name of stopping it is, apparently, an irony lost on her. At any rate, the lack of mail-in ballots was only partly responsible for the lower voter turnout.
Why does turnout matter? Those most committed to their political causes tend to vote most regularly. Those who don’t care very much about politics tend to be people with more superficial and transient views about political matters, and they tend to vote less regularly. Thus, other things equal, when voter turnout is lower, we should expect to see a higher percentage of voters with highly defined and stable political beliefs. When voter turnout is higher, we should expect to see a higher percentage of voters with loosely defined and unstable political beliefs. And that matters very much especially when it comes to guns.
Most people who advocate such laws as gun magazine restrictions don’t own any gun magazines, don’t know how magazines function, and don’t have very strong beliefs on the matter simply because they don’t know much about the relevant issues. (Obviously a small dedicated core of activists cares a great deal about legally restricting gun ownership and use.) On the other hand, people who own gun magazines and who might find themselves prosecuted and thrown in jail if they violate laws pertaining to gun magazines and the like tend to care very much about the nature of the gun laws. Who is more likely to vote in a recall election in which the hot topic is guns: Those who know little to nothing about guns but who may have a gut feeling that “guns are bad” or that magazines should be smaller, or those who own guns and are directly impacted by gun laws? The answer is obvious.
Those with well-defined, stable political beliefs—in this case, the typical gun-rights-supporting voter—are less susceptible to campaign ads (and Denver Post editorials). Giron and Morse enjoyed as much as an eight to one spending advantage and still couldn’t save their seats—because the people most likely to vote in the recalls were the least likely to be influenced by campaign ads (and Denver Post editorials). I suspect that all the pro-Morse and pro-Giron ads (along with the Denver Post editorials) only made gun-rights advocates all the more motivated to vote in the recalls.
For these reasons, Schultz is correct when she says of such cases, “when more people vote, Democrats win” (or at least perform better). Colorado Democratic Party chair Rick Palacio chalked up the loss to the work of “a very vocal group of individuals”—i.e., a group of people highly devoted to their cause.
Democrats rightly fear recalls now because Republicans will almost certainly use the subtle (or not so subtle) threat of potential recalls to frighten Democratic legislators into not supporting far-left legislation. Even if officials figure out how to provide mail-in ballots for recalls in a way that’s consistent with the state constitution, recalls would favor lower voter turnout, and therefore, in many scenarios they would favor Republicans.
However, at some point Democrats might figure out how to play the recall game as well. I can easily imagine Democrats recalling a Republican over the issue of abortion, depending on the district. (The problem with that scenario is that anti-abortion activists are relatively numerous and highly motivated.)
So are recall elections somehow anti-democratic? Obviously recalls result in more voting taking place, so they are profoundly pro-democratic in that sense. As we saw, recalls can result in fewer voters removing a candidate than voted the candidate into office. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that: People have the freedom to decide whether to vote or not in a given election.
If Democrats wish to openly admit that they think people should have fewer opportunities to vote, they are free to do so. But they should stop pretending that offering people more opportunities to vote is somehow anti-democratic or that it somehow results in “voter suppression.”
Colorado’s constitution gives people the ability to hold recall elections for political reasons. For entirely understandable reasons, Democrats wish to suppress such voting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Democrats’ position here; it’s just not very, well, democratic.
Author and blogger Ari Armstrong edits the Free Colorado website