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Lowering LA recall level increases accountability

The case of the recall of Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal demonstrates the merits and demerits of Louisiana’s recall laws, indicating the changes necessary to make it a more practical tool of accountability.

Ackal has come under indictment for some serious charges, so if convicted would have a felony rap that constitutionally would bar him from holding office. However, some Iberians have decided they want him out regardless and have started a recall petition against him. Louisiana’s recall provision applies to all elected officials except judges of courts of record (they have a separate judiciary-run mechanism to deal with their disciplining), any official within six months of finishing a term, or one who has faced a failed recall within 18 months. An effort does not rely on any special reason and requires valid signatures of a third of jurisdiction’s registered voters within 180 days of filing a petition for recall (unless the jurisdiction has fewer than 1,000 such voters, when two-fifths are required and the deadline is 90 days).

Compared to other states, only 28 others grant citizens such control over their officials. Of these, some (10) restrict efforts to certain causes and some (17) limit applicability only to certain officials. Six include appointed officials, with four including any official at any level of government.

But Louisiana acts as a real outlier with its thresholds. The only state that comes close to the one-third level is Tennessee, which requires two-thirds of voters in the last election (only some local offices) to sign. No other state comes close for anything higher than the lowest local offices; many set it at one-quarter and some quite a bit lower; Oregon, the first state to institute the idea, which allows the recall of any official elected or appointed, asks only that a number half of who voted in the previous election for governor in that jurisdiction to sign, meaning less than 10 percent in many cases.

For this reason, recalls don’t often succeed in Louisiana and almost never with offices beyond the most lowly and/or larger jurisdictions. Only slightly over 100 scheduled elections that have occured in the past half-century, even as about two-thirds of the few that get to that point ended with a recall or resignation of the official. Not a single one involved a state official and almost all involved municipalities. Just three occurred in a jurisdiction of at least 10,000 or more, none having to gather as many as five figures worth of signatures to succeed.

This historical record gives little hope for Ackal’s petitioners. They will need around 16,000 valid signatories. Worse, it shows how much the threshold discourages even attempts to recall, much less successful ballot placements, as other states with lower thresholds typically see the occasional legislator or even executive official including governor face an election.

Two things then stand out as far as desirable alteration to Louisiana’s process. First, it should include all public officials, thus including judges and appointees (which would necessitate a change in determining the threshold to something like Oregon’s). There’s no real reason to exclude judges; they already face public votes to enter office, so you can’t justify leaving it up to the Judiciary Commission and Supreme Court to boot them off the bench as a means to insulate from public pressure since their elections already moots that. And why exclude appointees of elected officials; removal of them may end up a more parsimonious solution than going after the appointing official as an indirect tactic when the elected one otherwise might carry out duties adequately.

Secondly and far more importantly, the non-small threshold must drop, at a bare minimum to 25 percent. This by votes cast was Oregon’s prior standard (so more like 15 percent total), and in a seven-year period a few years prior to the change to the current standard, 78 were held across the state, all but one succeeding. Oregon hasn’t fallen into anarchy even with the lower standard, so clearly the system works. Further, the 10 percent of registered voters standard in California hasn’t created an onslaught of attempts at the statewide level; only 161 have been attempted since its institution in 1913, with just nine making it to the ballot where five succeeded.

Statute lays out recall standards, and with state legislators subject to these we can expect feet of clay from them when it comes to making themselves potentially more vulnerable to recalls by lowering the threshold. But citizens deserve to have more accountability over public servants because of the improved governance it creates, so state lawmakers need to do the right thing and make the change next session.

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