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What Is the History of Recall Elections?

Even though 26 states authorize the recall in some form, Gray Davis is only the second governor in U.S. history to face a recall vote. Despite its infrequently usage, the recall has a long, if spotty, history in America.

The recall has always been at the forefront of a fundamental question about the role of an elected officials, namely whether the official should act as a trustee and vote his own opinion or perform as a delegate and vote according to the wishes of his constituency. This long running debate continues to this day with criticism of poll-driven politicians. This clash of ideologies was much in evidence during the debate about the recall's place in the new U.S. Constitution.

The actual origins of the recall is shrouded in conjecture. Its modern day creator, Dr. John Randolph Haynes, claimed that it was "derived historically from Greek and Latin sources...." However, the authors of many of the works on the practice cite Haynes as expropriating the idea from the Swiss.

While the first instance of the recall can be found in the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1631, and again in the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, the recall gained a firm footing in American politics with the democratic ideals that burst forth from the American Revolution. After declaring their independence, 11 of the 13 colonies wrote new constitutions, and many of these documents showed the new spirit of democracy. They specifically spelled out the laws in their constitution, which was a sharp departure from the unwritten British constitution. Most lessened the power of the executive and strengthened the legislature. Some opened up the right to vote to a larger portion of the population. And a few states wrote the recall into law as a method of controlling their elected representatives.

The states which adopted the recall were mainly concerned with the power of the representatives who served the states in the national government's congress. Unlike its modern day counterpart, the seventeenth and eighteenth century versions of the recall involved the removal of an official by another elected body, such as a state legislature recalling its United States senator. While this form provides a different relationship between the elected official and the general population the principles and the debates that engulfed the issue had not substantially changed.

The Revolution's success led the states to form a government under the Articles of Confederation, which were finally ratified in 1781. The government under the Articles was weak and at the mercy of the individual states. Unsurprisingly, the recall was included in the Articles of Confederation. According to recall proponent and New York delegate John Lansing, the recall was never exercised by any of the states throughout the brief history of the Confederation.

As the Articles of Confederation government proved a failure in leading the new country, some of the brightest lights in America met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the new Constitution. There is a plethora of materials on the Constitutional Convention, the debates surrounding its adoption, and its eventual impact. However, the issue of the recall has been mostly ignored, despite the fact that the idea was discussed. It was proposed by Edmund Randolph in his presentation of the Virginia Plan on May 29. The plan would have allowed the recall of the members of the first house of the legislature, who were directly elected by the people. On June 12, the convention passed Charles Pickney's motion to strike out the recall. The only other mention of the procedure in Madison's notes on the convention was a speech by future Vice President Elbridge Gerry exploring how the convention exceeded its mandate.

The argument for the recall was a strong component of the anti-federalist attack. The American Revolution was in many ways an attack on the existing power structure, or as Carl Becker said it was not just about home rule, but who rules at home. The new Constitution, in the view of many leading anti-federalists, was a conservative reaction to the American Revolution. One of the major opponents of the Constitution, Luther Martin, stressed the absence of a recall for senators, and the freedom from popular control that this absence represented, as a reason to reject the document. Martin was opposed to granting senators, who were elected by the state legislators and were seen as representing the more traditional aristocratic population, a large degree of freedom. He feared that senators would disregard their position as delegates of the people, and be free to work against the interests of their own states. Martin said: "Thus, sir, for six years, the senators are rendered totally and absolutely independent of their states, of whom they ought to be the representatives, without any bond or tie between them."

The idea of tightly binding the senators to their states was strongly opposed by the Federalists, most notably Alexander Hamilton. The topic gained new life when the Constitution was sent to the states to ratify. Each state elected a ratifying convention to approve or disapprove of the Constitution. Nine of the thirteen states votes were required for ratification. The topic took up several days of debate in the New York Ratifying Convention and was also proposed in the Massachusetts Convention. Using arguments that opponents of the recall would still be making more than a century later, Hamilton feared, that the recall "will render the senator a slave to all the capricious humors among the people."

In New York's Ratifying Convention on June 24, 1788, Gilbert Livingston introduced a measure calling for the recall of senators by state legislatures. Livingston was concerned that states would have "little or no check" on senators who have a six year term of office. John Lansing, an opponent of the new Constitution, said in words that echoed more than a century later, "they (the Senators) will lose their respect for the power from whom they receive their existence, and consequently disregard the great object for which they are instituted."

Hamilton denied the premise that the state legislatures would be more in tune with the will of the people, and argued that the recall would prevent the senators from being able to make difficult decisions. Hamilton said "… in whatever body the power of recall is vested, the senator will perpetually feel himself in such a state of vassalage and dependence, that he never can posses that firmness which is necessary to the discharge of his great duty to the Union."

By the time the New York Convention finally ratified the Constitution, enough states had ratified to form the government. However, there were still attempts to bring up various amendments to the new Constitution. Rhode Island, the last state to ratify in 1790, proposed 21 amendments, including granting state legislatures the power to recall their federal senators. However, the recall did not have the backing to continue as a major topic of debate after the failure of the anti-federalists. The recall of senators came up twice more, as the legislature in Virginia attempted to bring the topic up as a constitutional amendment in 1803 and 1808. The 1808 amendment was met by resolutions of disapproval from six states.

The recall received a considerable degree of support in America's early years. However, its proposed use as a weapon against the power of federal government officers failed to generate sufficient excitement to push its way through to adoption. With the Federalists' victory, the recall went into hibernation. It was not until the early part of the twentieth century, when the country was faced with a very different set of circumstances, that the recall reemerged as a viable political option. By that time, the field of debate had shifted to the state level, with the people themselves possessing the power of the recall. But the focus of the debates and the nature of the arguments had remained the same.