Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What to Take Away from the Colorado Recalls

In a state first, two Colorado senators, Democrats John Morse (Colorado Springs) and Angela Giron (Pueblo), were recalled yesterday, largely owing to their votes in support of gun control regulations earlier this year. Here are some lessons I think we should be learning from this event:

This doesn't tell us much about future elections
Some supporters of the recall have been eager to point out how this demonstrates the vulnerability of other supporters of gun regulations, such as Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is up for reelection next year. In fact, this was an unusual electorate. About 36% of registered voters in the Pueblo district turned out, and only about 21% of registered voters in Colorado Springs did so. This electorate is very different from the one that showed up in last year's presidential election, and it is not the same as the one that will turn out next November. The people who vote in a state legislative recall in September of an odd-numbered year are, by nature, atypically passionate about politics and particular issues (like guns). So maybe other gun control supporters are vulnerable, but it's hard to generalize from these contests. That said...

This will likely have a chilling effect on other gun control legislation
In a paper I did with Jeff Lewis and Thad Kousser, we found that California Democratic legislators shifted to the right after the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. The implication is that you don't need that many recalls to scare other officeholders, and those who want to keep their jobs will likely avoid this issue in the future. Granted, there probably weren't going to be that many more attempts at gun control bills this year at the state or federal level, but if Morse and Giron had survived the votes, that might have emboldened gun control advocates. The actual results send a signal that, regardless of public opinion, gun rights advocates are capable of mounting serious campaigns in a short period of time, and they have extremely motivated supporters who will show up for an election. Even where the recall doesn't exist, politicians will be looking at these results and taking them seriously.

Recalls are on the rise
There have been 38 state legislative recall elections in U.S. history. 17 of them have occurred just in this decade. This is proving to be a popular tool of the minority party, especially when the majority has unified control of the state and the minority has few other ways to slow down legislation it doesn't like.

Money can't buy you love
Initial estimates suggest that opponents of the recall outspent supporters by something like a 6-1 margin.  It's possible that the incumbents would have lost by more if not for all this spending. It's also possible that it's just not that easy to move a passionate electorate on issues like this or to get non-passionate people to show up. But put another check in the minimal effects box.


  1. I have some comments at

    Generally speaking, I don't think that shifts in the make up of the voters was that notable a factor in these recall elections. Giron had a 24K to 20K win in 2010 that turned into a 44% to 56% loss in 2013 with only modestly lower turnout. There was an unmistakable shift in voter opinions about her that can't be explained away with process considerations.

    In contrast, Morse received almost precisely the same percentage of votes cast as he did in 2010, but this time the vote was not split among three candidates. In his case, the recall election was a sour grapes do over of a race that was very close both times around.

    The possibility that because they are so rare, incumbents aren't well equipped to mobilize to fight a recall election is a real one, however.

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