Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Colorado Recalls: Punishing Extremists?

As you may have heard, there are currently two recalls of state legislators underway in Colorado. Senators John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) and Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) face recall elections on September 10th, organized by those who were outraged by their votes in favor of gun restrictions earlier this year.

The recall is pretty rarely used in the United States -- only three governors have ever faced a recall election, and one survived it. And we typically see only a handful of state legislative recalls across the entire nation in a given decade, although this current decade is proving to be a record-breaker. In theory, it's a drastic weapon that only need be used if an elected official has proven him/herself grossly incompetent or gone wildly astray from the preferences of his/her district, to the point where waiting until the next election is simply too much of ask of voters. So are Morse and Giron poor representatives of their districts?

To get a sense of this, I collected all the roll call votes cast in the 2013 session of the Colorado General Assembly (upper and lower chambers) and used them to calculate individual W-NOMINATE ideal points. I compared those ideal points (labeled "Legislator Conservatism" below) with the Republican share of two-party voter registration in each members' district. At least in theory, we should be able to detect members who are voting astray from their voters' wishes this way. Someone who votes too liberally should appear well below the trend line, and someone who votes to conservatively should appear well above it.

Representation in the Colorado General Assembly, 2013

In fact, Morse and Giron are very close to the trendline, suggesting that they are good matches for their districts. Giron is actually voting slightly more conservative than her district, with Morse just a hair more liberal than his.

Now, it should be noted that this method is far from perfect for detecting good or bad representation. The legislator conservatism scores are not necessarily on the same scale as voter registration, and so we should take this with a large grain of salt. But the available evidence suggests that Giron and Morse are from moderate-left districts and are among the more moderate legislators in their party. So why recall them?

Well, again, what's motivating those running the recall is less the senators' overall voting records and more their specific votes on a few key gun restriction measures. There is also the motivation of claiming a scalp. In a paper I did with Thad Kousser and Jeff Lewis, we found that California Democratic Assembly members serving during the recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 actually changed their voting behavior after the recall. They became more moderate. A successful recall scares other politicians, even if no one organizes a specific recall against them. No doubt those running the current recalls in Colorado are hoping to cow Democrats in the legislature for next year.

If successful recalls have an additional benefit of intimidating everyone else, what about unsuccessful recalls? Do they intimidate because it's a pain to go through even an unsuccessful recall -- or do they backfire because they reveal the weakness of the recallers?
It's a great question! I really don't know the answer. I've heard anecdotal evidence that Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin only grew more confident in his trajectory after he survived his recall election. It's quite possible that a failed recall could be interpreted a vote of confidence, causing the incumbent to continue on his/her path or become even more ideologically extreme. A good test would be of Wisconsin legislators during the Walker recall. I'll try to get to that... some day.


  1. If someone goes to work and does what is expected 9 days in a row, but on the 10th day tries to enact something crazy like slavery (against the constitution) that person should be fired. Here, these senators pushed for something that limits Constitutional rights and should be fired even if they did everything else perfectly well.

  2. It would be interesting to know precisely who is behind this recall. Is it a large number of citizens in their district? A few? Is it gun manufacturers? Is it another group, perhaps Koch backed, that could have other motives?

    I find it frustrating how accountability is so often blurred by labels such as "conservative," "business groups," and "citizens groups." Even the NRA label is confusing--are gun manufacturers the real muscle behind it or is it really a citizens group? I suspect it's gun manufacturers. And political fights like this are the best marking tactics imaginable.