Why Utah Should Allow Recall Elections

The following op-ed written by our policy analyst, Josh Daniels, was published in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah needs a recall election system. Governments “of the people” must have sufficient means for citizen oversight, and recall elections help ensure that government does not stray too far from the people.

Rep. Gage Froerer is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 4 in the current legislative session. If adopted, and if successful when placed on the ballot, the Utah Constitution would be amended to allow for the recall of the governor, state auditor, state treasurer and attorney general. This is a step in the right direction. However, in keeping with the proverb “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” it would be improved by including legislators on the list of elected officials subject to recall.

Of the 20 states with recall provisions for state officials, all but two — Illinois and Rhode Island — include state legislators. Utah should join the trend and create this ability for citizens to better hold elected officials accountable.

Our nation’s founders envisioned citizen legislators who represented the interests of their communities as noble statesmen. Utah’s part-time Legislature helps facilitate this important goal, but this does not shield our state from malfeasance during an official’s tenure.

Thomas Jefferson rightly noted that “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” But must Utah voters wait for several years, until another election, if rotten conduct is discovered? Denying the opportunity for recall insulates legislators from the very people they were elected to represent.

As the size and scope of government grows — as it clearly has — its accountability to the people should, at a minimum, grow accordingly. Even with a part-time Legislature like Utah’s, incumbency is powerful; the average state representative has been in office for five years and the average state senator for more than nine years.

These averages do not paint the full picture. A consistent crop of new freshmen offset the lengthy tenures of other legislators who have been in office for more than a dozen years.

American historian Daniel Boorstin articulated the issue well: “The representative of the people must be wary of becoming a professional politician. The more complex and gigantic our government, the more essential that the layman’s point of view have eloquent voices.”

This “layman’s point of view” is critical to ensuring accountability and transparency. Jefferson explained that, “The liberties of a people never will be secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Similarly, when legislators lack direct accountability they tend to overstep their authority and erode fundamental liberties.

When Colorado legislators enacted gun control laws that violated the rights of Coloradans to keep and bear arms, the state’s recall system allowed a check on this illegitimate exercise of legislative authority, and Colorado voters, for the first time, successfully recalled two senators — one of them the president of the Senate.

Utah’s praiseworthy efforts to increase transparency and accountability would be improved by ensuring our system has the adequate checks in place to encourage legislators to always remain accountable to the people — even, and especially, if they don’t face voters in a re-election campaign for several years.

George Mason said it eloquently: “Nothing so strongly impels a man to regard the interest of his constituents, as the certainty of returning to the general mass of the people, from whence he was taken, where he must participate in their burdens.”

Utah’s caucus system has been praised for requiring candidates to more intimately interact with the voters, thereby increasing accountability. Let’s improve upon this system by making sure that these candidates, once elected, remain close to their constituents.