At the time this article was
written Peter McCormick was professor of political science at the University of
This article explains the recall idea,
looks at how it has been used in other countries, outlines how it would might
work in Canada and offers some suggestions about what difference recall would
make to Canadian politics. This article, based on research done for the Lortie
Commission on Electoral Reform is an edited version of a presentation to the
Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs on March 15, 1994.
The recall of elected members is
not a new idea, nor is it particularly complicated. It is simply a device
whereby elected officials can be subjected at any time, to the review of the
people who put them in office. When I began to study recall it was considered a
terribly exotic idea that had no application to Canadian circumstances, but in
the past few years it has become part of the political debate in Ottawa and in
Part of the interest is because, as
we have seen, a lot can happen these days in the four or five years that is a
government's mandate. Two very obvious points are worth emphasizing. First of
all, the recall is a device linking officials to the people who elected them.
You can only recall your own representative, not anybody else's, no matter how
angry that person might make you as a voter. Second, you can only recall your
elected representative, not the entire government. It is a device that focuses
on the elected member.
Has anybody ever tried it? There
are 15 states in the United States that have the recall in place for elected
officials. A majority of states have the recall for municipal officials. The
recall was first adopted in Oregon in 1908, and the most recent adoption was
Georgia in 1978. Two states have been considering recall provisions within the
last five years. So it is still a going issue in the United States. It is not a
leftover from pre-World War I times.
The recall has not been exercised
very often. The best count I have been able to come up with is seven state
representatives, one state senator, two elected state cabinet officials and one
governor. There was also a second governor on the verge of being recalled when
the Senate jumped the gun and impeached him. I suppose we could call that a
half success for the recall.
I would argue that it is a device
that takes the individually elected representative far more seriously than most
devices and most of the arguments we are getting these days.
The low number of recalls derives
largely from the fact that the normal term of office in the United States is
two years. Therefore, it allows less time for voter resentment to build. This
creates an earlier threshold, and often it makes more sense just to wait for
the term to run out and then use the next election to replace the person.
In Canada only one province,
Alberta, has ever adopted the recall. The act was approved in 1936 and repealed
just over a year later when the premier's own constituents were on the verge of
collecting the very high required number of signatures. The whole episode is
too bizarre to go into in detail but one of the key factors was the Premier
Aberhart's rather brusque approach toward constituency service. He was so
dismissive, telling them to get out, not to waste his time, he was busy. It was
not an attitude which I would recommend to any of today's politicians.
Premier Aberhart's own explanation,
that he was being done in by eastern moneyed interest, made very good sense
from the point of view of Social Credit ideology but it is completely at
variance with the United States experience with recall or referendum, which is
that money does not very often buy results. If anything, it is the reverse. Our
own experience with the Charlottetown referendum, where the high-spending side
went down to defeat, could be matched by dozens of similar anecdotes from the
Two Models of Recall
How does the recall work? Part of
the confusion in talking about the recall is that there are two models. They
have rather different threshold numbers and implications.
The first model, the most common
one, has a three-stage process. First, there is a petition that must be signed
by a specific percentage of the electorate. Second, there is a vote on the
question of recall, where the citizens of the constituency are asked whether or
not they want to recall the representative. Third, if that second vote was
positive, you would then have a by-election to fill the vacancy that resulted.
This three-stage process is the most common method used in the United States.
It is the one that was suggested in a piece of legislation introduced into the
Alberta legislature in 1993.
The second model is a two-stage
process. It has the petition trigger the actual by-election directly with no
intervening vote. If you get enough signatures the seat is vacant and a
by-election must take place. This second model is used by a minority of the US
states that have this provision in place. It was also recommended by a British
Columbia select committee that was considering the question of recall last
The appropriate number of
signatures is a key point but it clearly makes a difference which of the two
routes you are talking about. If the effect of the petition is simply to
trigger a vote on whether or not to have a recall, it makes sense for the
threshold to be relatively low. The normal figure in the United States is 15%.
On the other hand, if it is the petition itself that triggers the by-election
that creates the vacancy in the seat that removes the member, then it makes
sense to have the threshold considerably higher. The threshold in Alberta in
1936 was two-thirds of the eligible voters in the constituency. The number
suggested by the British Columbia select committee was 50%. As a slight
variant, instead of counting the registered voters you could count the actual
voters. A majority of US states use this slightly lower criterion. It is a
percentage of the actual number of voters in the election that put the person
in office, not a percentage of the total electorate, some of whom will not have
exercised their franchise.
There is often but not always a
time limit. In the United States, with two-year terms, the time limit for
collecting signatures is not as big a deal as it would be here. The implicit
time limit is the next general election and that is never more than two years
away. In states that have a time limit, 60 days is normal, although some have a
higher number of 180 or 270. There is a wide variety of numbers, but many
states have a time limit on the collection of signatures.
Fourth and obviously most
critically, what difference would it make? I would like to begin by dealing
with the negatives first. These are three things that I think it would not do.
For one thing, we have to take with
a very large grain of salt the idea that the recall could be casually used by
other political parties for their immediate partisan purposes. This does not
take into account the way Canadians relate to parties these days. The people
who vote for a party in a general election are not that party's army that they
can snap their fingers and mobilize for action. It takes more than that to
trigger voters to action. We see this in the recent excitement in Markham,
Ontario. The thing that is so obvious about Markham is that it is not Reformers
who want a second chance at the seat and it is not poor-loser Conservatives, it
is Liberals who are agitating for the chance to recall their own
representative, and I think that catches an extremely important dimension of
Recall is the way that the people
who put the person in office can call that person back to account. It is not a
way that other parties or other voters can sneak around and try to cancel out
the previous election.
Second, we have to reject the
argument that voters would be discarding representatives every second week,
that there would be recalls going on endlessly and constantly. In a democracy
it should not be necessary to belabour this point. If we can trust the electors
to show some wisdom and some judgment in electing people in the first place,
surely it is not unreasonable to say they will exercise similar wisdom and
judgment in how often and to what purposes they use the recall. If we can not
trust them to use the recall, then it is not clear why we trusted them to do
the electing in the first place.
Recall is often a demand for an
explanation. The circulation of a recall petition is a way of alerting a representative
to the fact that his electors are annoyed. If it brings an MP hotfooting from
Ottawa to hold a number of town fora or something, that would be a good thing.
Usually that will bleed off enough of the discontent that the petition would
Another strong feature of the
recall is that in a way it is a self-validating protest. Either they do get the
signatures or they cannot. If the cannot, then the representative is enhanced
in his claim to represent the riding and the complaint has been revealed to be
a minority in the riding.
Third, although Prime Ministers and
senior cabinet ministers are attractive targets the Aberhart experience
demonstrates that we should not over-react to this prospect. The US experience
can tell us nothing about this particular problem. One possibility might be to
exempt such individuals from the recall. My own feeling again is that would not
be necessary. Without wanting to be too cynical, I think most citizens are
perfectly aware of the very real, often very material, and often extremely
physical advantages that flow from having a senior cabinet minister, or the
Prime Minister, represent your particular constituency, I think that does
something to tilt the scales the other way and balance the odds.
Putting these bogeymen aside, the
real consequences of the recall will be twofold. First, elected members would
know that they had to take their electors seriously all the time, not just once
every four or five years. That, in turn, would encourage a definition of
democracy that defined leadership in terms of persuading voters to follow; it
would not just be making the tough decisions, but making the tough decisions
and explaining why they were necessary, and making that accounting when the
voters asked for it. That is a dimension of leadership, the public education
dimension, which would be emphasized by the recall.
Just as important, I see the recall
as a device not to limit private members, not to reduce their role, but to
increase it. I think a lot of private members would welcome the chance to have
a second master to play off against the caucus master they now clearly have and
that they would benefit from that opportunity.
In the longer run, I think the only
real road to a more effective Parliament is a feistier set of backbenchers, and
I value the recall for the chance that it might contribute to exactly that
What we are talking about here is a
conception of democracy and of representation. If we think of democracy as a
way for one party to win the big prize every four years, and the critical
question being an electoral system that structures voter preferences so as to
generate that choice, then our electoral system is simply horrible. The
mathematical problems in the single-member riding are abysmal. The luck of the draw
that occurs in riding after riding makes it a difficult way to transmit that
kind of popular feeling.
If what we have in mind is allowing
voters to cast carefully nuance choices, weighing parties and candidates and issues,
then our electoral system is totally inappropriate for the occasion. We could
easily improve on it.
However, if the purpose of an
electoral system, if the purpose of democratic representation, is to link a
specific representative to a clear and identifiable group of voters and to
provide for accountability, responsiveness, leadership between those two, then
our electoral system has real advantages. Indeed that is the only way you can
defend it as a method of democratic representation.
One of the big arguments for the
recall is the way it builds on that very real strength and logic which already
exists in our electoral system.