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Book of Matthew: Total recall: Breaking the Wisconsin deadlock

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


The situation in Wisconsin has reached a stalemate, but it may not stay that way for much longer.

Opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal have done all they can to prevent the bill—which includes steep spending and the elimination of collective bargaining rights for most public employee unions—from passing the Republican-controlled state legislature. Protesters, ranging from average Wisconsin citizens to high-profile politicians, have spent more than two weeks perpetually picketing the state capitol in Madison.

Meanwhile, the ship of state remains adrift thanks to the 14 Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin for Illinois, denying the state senate the quorum it needs to pass the budget and putting themselves out of reach of Wisconsin State Police.

But rather than convince Walker of the need for a major compromise, these actions seem to have only hardened his heart.

Walker still insists on passing the budget as written, and he recently threatened to send layoff notices to 1,500 state employees if this does not happen today. His allies are being just as stubborn: Republican senators are punishing their renegade Democratic colleagues by fining them $100 for every day they do not show up to vote. As this has so far made little impression upon the Democrats, there has been talk of Republicans taking control of absent Democrats’ staffs—leading many staffers to worry about their potential new supervisors firing them in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Faced with these grim realities, supporters of Wisconsin state employees have only one option left that does not involve caving to Walker’s demands: recall elections, for which papers were officially filed Wednesday. Though Governor Walker himself cannot yet be challenged (Wisconsin election laws stipulate that all elected officials must serve a year in office before being recalled) eight Republican senators are eligible. Democrats would only need to defeat three of those Republicans to regain control of the senate.

Could it work? The numbers are surprisingly favorable. Out of the eligible Republicans, six come from districts that President Obama carried by at least 50 percent in 2008. Three won their last elections by only a few percentage points—most notably Senator Randy Hopper of the 18th district, who was elected in 2008 by a margin of 187 votes.

The actual process of holding recall elections, however, may prove more difficult than winning them. Supporters of each recall must collect—within 60 days—signatures equal to at least 25 percent of the votes cast in that particular district for the last gubernatorial election. This means that for each of the eight eligible Republican senators, anywhere from 15,000 to 21,000 signatures are required.

Once those enormous petitions are submitted, a certification process of up to six weeks will commence to ensure that the petition meets all legal requirements. After that, the election period begins, which is another six weeks (or 10, if a primary is held).

That’s an awful long time for the Democratic senators to remain AWOL, and it won’t be easy for supporters to sustain their political momentum. But if they can muster the same enthusiasm during the next few months as they have in the past few weeks, several Republicans are going to be sorry that they ever tried to curb the power of unions. American history is full of tales of angry groups of citizens sending their leaders home early: from the replacement of California Governor Gray Davis with Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 to the recall provisions found in the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t believe recall elections are to be taken lightly. They should only be reserved for when elected officials violate not only the will of the people but also the public’s faith in their ability to lead. But with polls showing increasing support for unions and the right of collective bargaining, and lessening support for Walker and his budget, now is one of those times.