Unpacking Government: Why It's So Difficult To Recall Politicians In Washington

Apr 3, 2017

How difficult is it to remove a politician from office outside of an election? Only two United States presidents have ever been impeached and even they kept their jobs. In Washington state, while there are mechanisms for both impeachment and recall of elected officials, they are rarely used and almost never successful.

State Process Similar To Congressional Impeachment Of President

University of Washington Law School professor Hugh Spitzer is an expert on Washington’s Constitution. He co-wrote the book “The Washington State Constitution: A Reference Guide.” He says a provision for impeachment was written into the original constitution in 1899.

It says that statewide office holders, such as  governors, have to be impeached by the state House of Representatives and then tried in the Senate.

“It does mirror the federal process,” Spitzer said.

Washington has a Recall Option

Where Washington laws differ from federal statutes regarding removing elected officials from office is the state also has a recall process. Recalls are initiated by voters.

“The reason for the recall is to get rid of politicians who are bad actors and have violated the law,” Spitzer said.

A recall vote can be used to remove just about any elected official from office: a mayor, a school board member or a state legislator. Judges are not included; there are other methods in the state for removing them from office.

Anti-establishment Mood In Early 20th Century Led To Recall Law In Washington

Washington is one of just 19 states, most in the West, that allow the recall.

The recall law was passed in 1912, the same time as the law allowing the citizen initiative and the citizen referendum in Washington. 

Spitzer says it was a time when the populace was dissatisfied with the status quo.

“They were dealing with very powerful railroads and banks that gave people a hard time and so folks were pretty anti-establishment, anti-business and anti-government, all at the same time,” said Spitzer.

The recall was seen as a way to hold politicians accountable.

Recall Process Isn't Easy — And Usually Fails

To recall a politician, you have to meet a high bar.  For example, you need evidence that the politician has done something illegal, like taken a bribe.

“It’s not to get rid of a politician you don’t like,” Spitzer points out.

And, there are several steps you have to take to get a recall on the ballot. You have to gather signatures and, before you can even do that, you have to get a judge to sign off on it.

The majority of recall petitions in this state are thrown out by the courts.

Recall Effort Against State Lawmaker Exemplifies How Difficult The Process Is

Recently, State Senator Doug Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican, angered some of his constituents when he decided to take a position with President Donald Trump’s transition team in Washington D.C. while keeping his job as a  state senator in Olympia.

At a press conference in Olympia on February 2, he defended himself, saying he’d consulted legal experts.

“I wanted to make sure what I was attempting to do was both ethical and legal and meeting the intent of the law and the letter of the law,” Ericksen said.

But that didn’t satisfy Michael Shepard, who lives in Erickson’s district in Whatcom County.

Shepard, a college professor, led an effort to recall Erickson. When Shepard delivered his recall petition at the Whatcom County Courthouse, he told the Bellingham Herald,

“Not only has Ericksen not been available for us as his constituents, he’s not been available for critical votes on the Senate floor and other business of the state Legislature.”

The recall petition against Ericksen was thrown out by a judge, who ruled Shepard’s group hadn’t presented adequate evidence that Erickson had broken the law.  For his part, Ericksen offered a "no comment" when contacted by KNKX to respond to the judge's ruling in his favor.

It's worth noting that only a handful of elected officials have ever been recalled in Washington and no state legislator has.

Should The Recall Process Be Changed?

When I talked with Shepard a few weeks after the recall petition had been tossed, he was disappointed. He said the problem with the recall process is there aren’t any “minimum standards” lawmakers have to meet to keep their job.

“So he can essentially do nothing and still be within the safety of the law,”Shepard said.

He’d like to see that changed so that lawmakers have to meet minimum standards or be subject to recall, but critics worry it would open the flood gates to frivolous recall attempts by people who just don’t like a politician’s views. 

The Tried And True Method Of Removing A Politician May Be The Best Course

Shepard says having failed at getting Ericksen recalled, he's now focusing on the next election — on finding a candidate to run against the Republican Senator. Shepard, a Democrat, says he's looking for someone with bipartisan appeal who might have a chance in the conservative district. 

“And we’re also stepping up a campaign for new voter registration as well in our district,” he said.

Given that most recall attempts in the state fail the best way to “fire” a politician may be doing what Shepard is, biding your time and trying to vote them out of office.

This story is part of our series, Unpacking Government. Have questions of your own? Send them to unpackinggovernment@knkx.org.