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What Is a Recall Election and How Does It Work?

2 min read
Voting Signs Politics Team · Nov 2, 2023

When an official is elected to office, they're expected to upkeep certain responsibilities. Should they fail to fulfill these responsibilities, they run the risk of having their term of office cut short by a recall.

What's a recall, you ask? How does the process work? We're going to answer both questions and more below, helping you gain a thorough understanding of the recall election process.

Let's get started.

What Are Recall Elections?

A recall is an event held for the purpose of removing public officials from office before their term has expired. So, if an elected official was due for a 4-year term, a recall could potentially remove them from office after just 1, 2, or 3 years instead.

The significance of recall elections is that they give constituencies an opportunity to reconsider their initial vote. Citizens can choose to either uphold the original vote or overturn it. Should they decide to overturn it, the elected official in question will be removed from office. If the recall fails, the elected official will resume their term without further disturbance.

The recall process is not allowed in all U.S. states. At the present time, 39 states allow such elections to take place in some form or another. These states all have different laws pertaining to what can trigger a recall. While some states require nothing more than a minimum number of petition signatures, other states require some form of malfeasance to have been committed by the official in question.

The Legal Framework of Recall Elections

The legal framework for recalls varies based on the state. Federally, recalls are not permitted by legislation. So, in other words, you can't recall the President of the United States.

State laws specify everything from reasons for recall elections to the process of voting in recall elections to the specifics of recalling elected officials and more. Some states' laws are more specific than others, meaning there's room for interpretation in specific states.

Currently, there are only 11 states with no recall provisions. These include Alabama, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Utah. All other states allow recall election campaigns to some extent.

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Reasons for Initiating a Recall Election

Reasons for recall elections depend on the state’s specific laws and circumstances. In many states, there doesn't need to be a particular reason for a recall. If there's enough support presented in the way of a petition (thus meeting signature requirements for recalls), a recall can be held.

In other states, however, there needs to be just cause, either legally or politically. For instance, if the elected official has participated in some form of voter fraud, there would be grounds for a recall. Or, if the elected official had a conflict of interest financially, there would be grounds for a recall. In such states, simply disliking an official isn't grounds for a recall petition.

Steps in a Recall Election

Now, let's talk about the various steps involved in a recall. Generally speaking, these elections involve the following:

#1: Determine Recall Election Legality

First and foremost, you need to ensure that the recall is legal in your state or jurisdiction. Does your state allow recall for any purpose, or does there have to be a certain action that triggers a recall?

If it's the former, then a recall is legal regardless. If it's the latter, you'll need to determine whether the official in question has committed any acts that would trigger a recall election.

#2: Gather Signatures for a Recall Petition

If the recall is deemed legal, you can start getting signatures for a recall petition. The number of signatures required will depend on your state or jurisdiction, not to mention the type of official that you're attempting to recall.

Note that it's necessary to file the petition formally. The petition must be run through your state or municipality. For detailed information on the matter, call up your local voting boards.

#3: Hold a Recall

If enough signatures are collected for a petition, a recall will be scheduled. At this point, the state or municipality will handle the proceedings. All eligible voters will have the opportunity to vote. If constituents vote in favor of a recall, the official in question will be removed from office.

#4: Potentially Hold an Additional Campaign

In some cases, there will be an additional campaign held after the initial recall. In these cases, the recall simply serves to indicate that the elected official is eligible to be removed. The additional election has that official running against another official, thereby deciding whether they get to remain in office or whether their opposition takes over their seat.

Case Studies: Recall Elections in Action

There have been many recalls held over the years. They've become increasingly common in recent years. That said, most successful recalls happen to lower-level officials.

In American recall history, only two governors have been successfully recalled in elections. These include North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California's Gray Davis in 2003. Let's discuss these recall election examples in detail:

Lynn Frazier, Former Governor of North Dakota

Lynn Frazier was the 12th governor of North Dakota. His term as governor began in 1917. While he was at first a popular governor, public sentiment toward him soured after an economic depression leveled the state. A grassroots effort resulted in a recall petition being filed against the governor. Frazier ultimately lost the recall election, and the office of governor was instead transferred to Ragnvald Nestos.

Gray Davis, Former Governor of California

Gray David took over as California's 37th governor in 1999. He was initially well-received by the California populace, as his policies helped to improve the state in the realms of education, environmental protections, and more.

However, following the dot-com bubble burst as well as an electricity crisis in the state, Davis made a series of poor budgeting decisions that would ultimately turn the tide of public opinion against him.

This resulted in a recall petition being approved. During the recall, Davis was removed from office with a 55.4% vote, and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Impact of Recall Elections on Democracy

The effect of recall elections on democracy is a much argued topic. Some believe recalls to be good for democracy. Others believe recalls to be a detriment. In many cases, citizens' opinions of recalls come down to the situations that are being presented. In this sense, recalls are just another hand to play on the political poker table.

The current official's values and platform don't align with yours? If you strike during a negative period, you might very well be able to get them recalled. On the other hand, if you're a supporter of the official in question, an unexpected recall could come as a punch in the gut.

There are pros and cons to recalls as they pertain to the strength of a democracy. On one hand, you might argue that they serve as a real-time indicator of public opinion, and thus strengthen democracy. On the other hand, you could argue that they destabilize the political system, and thus make it difficult to get anything of substance done.

Regardless, recalls are a reality, if a relatively rare one. They provide more nuanced representation to voters and spur on greater civic engagement. In this sense, they're a boon to democracy.

The Role of Citizens in Recall Elections

When it comes to recalls, citizens are what make the entire thing a possibility. Recall elections are triggered by citizen-created petitions. They're citizen-initiated recalls.

You yourself could start a petition that leads to a recall. You just need to file the necessary paperwork and obtain the required number of signatures. If you do that, you can affect the democratic processes in your state or local municipality.

There are numerous other ways to maintain political accountability in your district or state as well. You can attend town hall meetings, contact elected officials by email, letter, or phone, and even run for office yourself.

Being an active citizen can truly make a difference in the political landscape. The key is to put yourself out there and be consistent. In doing so, you can combat and influence all sorts of political issues, from gerrymandering to legislative apportionments to suffrage and more.

The Consequences of a Successful Recall

What happens when a recall is successful? What are the most common recall election effects or recall election outcomes? That depends on the laws of the state or jurisdiction.

In some cases, a recall election results in the immediate replacement of the recalled official. The official will essentially run in a recall campaign against another official. If the alternative official receives more votes, the initial official is recalled.

In other cases, there is a secondary campaign held after the initial recall campaign. If the recall is voted through, a second campaign will be scheduled with the initial official facing off against a new candidate. If the initial official wins this campaign, they remain in power for the remainder of their term; if the new prospective official wins, the initial official must resign and hand the office over to the new elected official for the remainder of the term.

Note, though, that there's nothing stopping the recalled official from running for another term in the future. A successful recall simply ends their existing term of office.

Challenges and Criticisms of Recall Elections

Recalls certainly have their merits. However, they've been challenged and criticized on a number of occasions as well. Some of the biggest criticisms of recalls include the following:

#1: Recall Elections Are Expensive

All elections are expensive to put on. Gubernatorial elections cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Recalls are no exception, typically costing hundreds of millions of dollars themselves. Some believe that this added expense is too substantial, especially considering that the initial campaign gives everyone a fair chance to vote.

#2: Recalls Have Low Turnouts

Another criticism of recalls is that they have low turnout compared to initial elections. They're generally not marketed as heavily and so don't see as many voters. Some believe this to be a flaw in the system, as they believe that recalls don't represent the will of the people as well as initial elections do.

#3: Impeachment Already Exists as a Way to Remove an Official from Office

There's also criticism of recalls due to the fact that impeachment already exists. Some reason that, if impeachment exists, there's no reason to have an alternative for removing an official from office. They also reason that, if the official truly deserves to be removed, the bipartisan support required of impeachment is better equipped to make the determination.

Recall vs. impeachment is hotly debated in political circles. Some think recall to be a more democratic form of removal, as it enables citizens to remove officials themselves. Others think that recall is too fickle, and more prefer the protections afforded by impeachment. It is important to note, though, that impeachment requirements vary between states, and not all political offices can be impeached.

Recall Elections: A Tool for Democratic Accountability

When it comes down to it, recall elections are a tool for democratic accountability. They help ensure that elected officials are abiding by their responsibilities, thus helping to maintain a strong democracy. They also help to strengthen voting rights.

Interested in learning more about how you can make a difference in strengthening our democracy? Check out’s resources for volunteers today.

Photo Credit: Janine Robinson on Unsplash

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Voter Education
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By Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.