Friday, November 05, 2010

Recall will be easier said than done

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution this week that would allow for the recall of a sitting governor, so long as he or she has spent at least six months in office. Some say, however, that the hoops voters would have to jump through make the amendment relatively useless.

To pass, the amendment needed support from 60 percent of those who voted on Tuesday. It received the backing 66 percent, or more than 2 million votes.

If voters want to remove a governor from office, they first must file an affidavit with signatures from 20 lawmakers from the Illinois House and 10 from the Illinois Senate. The signing members must be evenly split from both parties. If the State Board of Elections approves the request, voters would get 150 days to circulate petitions and gather signatures from enough people to equal 15 percent of the turnout for the last gubernatorial election.

For example, if the threshold was based on the turnout in this week’s election - 3.6 million - voters would have to get more than 525,000 signatures. Petitions must also have at least 100 signatures each from 25 counties in the state. (The American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois recently questioned the constitutionality of that requirement.) Once the petitions are turned in, the Board of Elections has 100 days to approve them.

If the board finds the signatures valid and gives the go-ahead, a special election would be held to ask voters if they want to remove the governor from office. Candidates who wanted to replace the governor would also appear on the ballot. So if voters approve the recall, the special election will also serve as a primary election. If the governor is recalled, the lieutenant governor will fill in until another election is held within 60 days to choose a replacement.

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield and director of the Sunshine Project, described that process as a “screwy Rube Goldberg device.” He said the requirements voters would have to meet to unseat a governor makes the notion of recall power “largely symbolic.” However, he said it is difficult to strike a balance between making the requirements realistic for voters to reach, while still making it difficult enough that a governor would not be unseated unless there was true public outrage.

Emily Miller, who researched Illinois’ recall amendment for the Better Government Association, described the amendment as a “hybrid” between recall and impeachment because legislators must sign off to initiate the process. “Illinois is unique in that [among states that have recall], and it is that way because, frankly, it is another way to retain power in the Illinois legislature,” Miller said.

The sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Jack Franks, said he did not initially plan on including the requirement that legislators sign off. But it became a part of the bill through compromise with Gov. Pat Quinn. Franks, a Marengo Democrat, wanted recall to apply to all constitutional officers, but that was dropped from the final version, as well.

Franks said recall is rarely used in the state’s that have it, and he hopes Illinois won’t need it. He likened it to a "nuclear deterrent" against bad behavior from a governor. But if voters feel strongly enough to use it, he said they should be able to successfully remove a governor. “I trust the voters. … People have to have a passion for them to stand up and do a recall.”

While Franks did not include the legislature in his original plan, he says he thinks it is a good idea because voters can hold lawmakers accountable by asking them to sign on to a recall movement.

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