When should we "throw the bums out"?
Given recent efforts to recall four Colorado lawmakers over controversial gun control legislation, the question may seem thoroughly modern. But actually, its roots dig back a century, and involve ideologies about governance; the influence of President Theodore Roosevelt; and a bunch of blue-collar workers.
As much as any gun-waving activist, these American histories have now impacted Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster; Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango; Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo; and Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.
In the modern battle, by the way, victors are emerging. Hudak and McLachlan have already survived attempts to oust them. Meanwhile, petitioners are still working to gather required signatures from district residents — "more in number than twenty-five percent of the entire vote cast at the last preceding election" — to recall Giron and Morse.
Sitting in a competitive district in a conservative county, Morse is an attractive target. For added cachet, he'd be the first Colorado senator to be dispatched this way. And the threat of an election is real, considering that just 7,178 signatures are needed by June 3, and paid signature-gathers are doing the work.
"It really is the bizarre convergence of circumstances," Morse tells the Independent, "because they really can take me out."
But is this really the way the recall was intended to be used? Consider:
• Bankrolling much of the Morse effort is the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, an issue group getting money through a 501(c)(4), which isn't required to disclose its funders. Petitioners have been recorded telling citizens to sign based on rumors or bizarre conspiracy theories.
• Morse's recall will cost El Paso County taxpayers around $150,000.
• The ouster would be largely symbolic, since he's term-limited in 2014, anyway.
• The effort is purely political, not based on an ethical breach.
Sound like unintended consequences? Well, you might be surprised.
According to the Colorado constitution, which allowed recalls beginning in the 1910s, "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."
Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, puts it this way: "As it stands the recall can be used for any reason, so when I read these arguments, 'Well, that's not the way the recall was designed to be used' — well, yes it is."
The law has many of its roots in the Progressive Party of the early 20th century. Its most famous member was Roosevelt, who had already served two terms as president as a Republican, but joined the Progressives in an effort to gain a third term. He didn't succeed, and the short-lived Progressives had little success nationally.
On the state level, however, their direct-democratic reforms — including citizen-driven initiatives, referendums and recalls — proved popular. As Loevy explains, they were a reaction to the extreme power of "political bosses" and large corporations, like the railroads.
Since then, Loevy notes, the recall has targeted leaders with drinking problems, and removed Southern politicians sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. More recently, it has been employed by both parties to settle political disputes about union rights, the civil liberties of immigrants and the like.
Nineteen states currently allow a citizen-driven recall, and while it's used often on the local level, the National Council of State Legislatures notes on its website that "recall attempts against legislators have succeeded in triggering an election just 36 times, and eleven of those occurred in a single year, 2011." Only 17 have ever been successful.
Considering that the Progressives hoped to rein in the power of big special interests, they likely would be appalled to see their reforms allowing the rich even more influence.
Loevy notes that Colorado's loose initiative laws, for instance, have long invited wealthy, out-of-state tinkerers to test the viability of a new law before trying to pass it around the country. Both Loevy and Joshua Dunn, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, dislike the initiative process for that reason, and because it has a tendency to create contradictory and confusing laws.
But they differ in how they assess the threat recalls pose. Loevy notes that recall efforts are difficult (requiring thousands of signatures), often aren't successful, and are "likely to be trotted out only when the intensity is very great" on a particular issue. Dunn says the increasing polarization of political parties could lead to recalls being used to intimidate legislators into safe votes.
"If this is what we're going to do to hold public officials accountable, why not have complete direct democracy?" he asks. "Why not just have the voters vote on everything? And if you don't think that's a good idea, then why do you think it's appropriate to be able to recall elected officials for these nonethical reasons? I think it will force legislators to view every vote as a kind of plebiscite."
On that note, Morse says he personally has no regrets about voting for limits on ammunition and for background checks for gun buyers. Whatever the consequences, he says, he voted his conscience.
Recalling December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, he says, "None of us wants to live in a society where somebody takes his mom's AR-15 and blows away  kids, shooting them in the head."