In a year in which California creeps to another potential recall election against a Governor, Arkansas voters may be given a chance to decide if they should also join in the fun. The state legislature is now considering whether to allow a proposed recall law to go to the voters. The constitutional amendment has a high hurdle to clear – only three legislative amendment ballot measures are allowed to be voted on each election, and there are 43 currently being considered.
Arkansas has been here before. The state voters have twice cast ballots on adopting a state-level recall law, though the last time was in 1932. On the local level, Arkansas has been a user of recalls, with the state serving as the site of arguably the most prominent recall of the 1950s. But adopting a state-level recall would put Arkansas in a new category.
Arkansas voters actually passed a recall law in the first set of initiatives allowed back in 1912. The State Supreme Court quickly quashed the recall, ruling that the initiative law limited voters to three ballot measures per election. There were nine, although only three of them were approved. The state-wide recall was tossed out and has not returned.
The recall also came to a vote in another important election year. In 1932, Arkansas voters rejected an amendment that included the recall. However, the recall was tacked on as part of a larger amendment, one that looked to provide a split legislative session and increase the term of office for state officials to four years. As part of the deal for the longer term, state officials would have been subject to recall. This measure went down to defeat, along with seven other initiatives.
In the years since, there have been failed attempts to add on a state level recall, but the recall on the lower level has been used repeatedly. Probably the most prominent in Arkansas history – and perhaps the most noteworthy Civil Rights Era recall – was fought following the so-called “Lost Year” when Little Rock’s public high schools were all closed in a failed attempt to stop desegregation (though high school football was apparently allowed to continue). Following the white supremacists’ attempted “purge” of 44 teachers and principals, recall efforts were organized against both sides. Three segregationist members of the board were voted out on May 25, 1959, dealing a fatal blow to Governor Orville Faubus’ segregationist efforts.
Arkansas also saw an attempted recall of US Senator William J. Fulbright in 1968 by one of his defeated opponents. That effort focused on getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would also include federal officials. The petitioners got 57,111 signatures in six weeks, just 4500 short. However, if it did succeed in getting approved, there is great likelihood that the US Supreme Court would have overruled any attempt of a Fulbright recall and decided that a US Senator cannot face a recall election. The court has never had to rule on a federal recall, but a number of attempts against US Senators have been thrown out by state courts.
In recent years, while Arkansas has not been a leader in recall elections, the state has seen its share. In 2012, six mayors were all up for a recall vote on Election Day, with the leaders of Alexander and Kingsland losing office (the mayors of Bauxite, Cotton Plant, Redfield and Wilmot survived their votes).
In 2016, three Arkansas mayors were kicked out (in Earle, Humphrey and Harford), with a fourth (Hughes) surviving. And in 2020, the Diamond City Mayor was removed after multiple resignations of local officials and accusations of repeatedly missing meetings.
If Arkansas were to adopt the recall law, it would join a minority of states to have it on the state level. Currently, only 19 or 20 states may allow it for state level officials, though even that group is larger than it seems: Virginia has an odd “recall trial” law that probably doesn’t include the governor; Illinois only allows it for the Governor and Rhode Island exempts the legislature.
The proposed recall law would be more among the more expansive variety. Arkansas would adopt what is called a “Political Recall” law, one that allows recalls for nearly any reason. Currently, eleven states have such a provision: California, Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, North Dakota, New Jersey, Idaho, Louisiana and Nevada. The other states have adopted what I call a Malfeasance Standard recall, one that is only allowed for a violation of a statutorily specified reason, such as a crime of demonstrated incompetence. These states, Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Rhode Island and Washington (and Virginia’s recall trial), have many fewer recalls.
The adoption of a recall law will probably not result in a flood of attempts. While recalls have gotten vastly more popular, there still have only been three Governors who have faced a recall on the state level in US history (and one other who was impeached on the day the signatures were verified). Only 39 state legislators have faced a recall vote, and the vast majority of them have taken place in states that are either closely divided or where there was a clear political benefit for a recall. That is not likely to happen in deep red Arkansas. A state with one party domination in the legislature is less unlikely to see many recall attempts. What the recall will do is hand voters a tool that has been alternatively described as “the hair trigger” form of government or the “gun behind the door.” Whether this helps promote better government is an unanswered – and possibly unanswerable – question. But if Arkansas voters adopt the law, they will be joining a strong minority of states that, for good or ill, have found the recall to be a worthwhile political reform.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. He blogs at the Recall Elections Blog.
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