Recalling Governors: An Overview

by Amy Zacks (contributor)

Updated September 15, 2021; originally posted April 25, 2012


On September 14, 2021, Californians voted on to retain Governor Gavin Newsom (D) in a recall election. This was the second recall vote held in California history, with the first less than 20 years ago when Governor Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and just the fourth held in the United States overall. The most recent governor to face a recall vote before Newsom—Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) in 2012—was the first to win a recall vote and remain in office. Walker would go on to win re-election in 2014 before losing to Tony Evers (D) in 2018. Newsom became the second governor in U.S. history to win a recall vote.

The recall process differs among the states that maintain this option and it can be confusing. While recall petitions are relatively common, it is rare for a recall to actually reach election stage. Below is a look at the process, which states allow it, and the history of the process.

National Picture

Gavin Newsom was the fourth governor in U.S. history to face a recall election. Scott Walker, the third and most recent (in 2012), was the first to emerge victorious. In 1921, North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was removed from office following a dispute about state-owned industries. Newsom, however, is the second California governor to face a recall election: Gray Davis (D) was recalled in 2003 after voters blamed him for the state’s electricity crisis and the overall economic recession.


Gubernatorial Recall Elections in U.S. History

Year State Governor Outcome
1921 North Dakota Lynn Frazier Recalled
2003 California Gray Davis Recalled
2012 Wisconsin Scott Walker Kept in office
2021 California Gavin Newsom Kept in office


A recall election, also known as recall referendum or representative recall, allows citizens to remove and replace a public official before the end of a term of office. Recall has been used most frequently at the local level. The National Conference of State Legislatures ( reports that three-quarters of recall elections occur at the city council or school board level. However, 19 states permit the recall of state officials, including governors. They are:

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin

The District of Columbia also allows recalls, and Virginia permits recall by trial, rather than election.

In many of these states, any registered voter can begin a recall campaign for any reason. Eight states (AK, GA, KS, MN, MT, RI, VA, WA) require specific grounds for recall, usually some type of misconduct or malfeasance.

While the details vary by state, a recall election begins when an application is filed, requesting permission to circulate a recall petition. The number of signatures required is usually based on a formula derived from a percentage of the vote in the last election for the office in question, or in some states, the number of eligible voters. The time frame to collect signatures varies; some states (including Wisconsin) set a circulation time of 60 days, while others indicate 90, 120, 150, 180, or as many as 270 days (in Washington State).

After signatures are collected, the petition is submitted to state election officials. If sufficient valid signatures are presented, the petition is certified and a recall election is scheduled and held.


The Wisconsin 2012 Recall Election

Shortly after taking office in January 2011, Governor Scott Walker proposed a budget that required additional contributions by state and local government workers to their health care plans and pensions, thus lowering their take-home pay. The bill which also eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public employees received statewide and national attention. Over labor union and Democratic leaders’ protests, it was passed by the state legislature, sparking the movements to recall Walker, as well as the Lieutenant Governor and several Republican and Democratic state senators.

After opponents to Governor Walker gathered 900,938 valid signatures on recall petitions; only 540,208 were needed – 25% of the total votes cast in the last governor’s race in 2010, a primary was scheduled for May 8, 2012 and a general election for June 5, 2012. In the primary, Wisconsin Democrats chose their nominee from 2010 – Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett – to again face Walker. Barrett defeated Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive from the capital city Madison, Secretary of State Doug La Follette and state Senator Kathleen Vinehout. In the June election, both Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch beat back the challenge and retained their offices.

The major and bitter disputes between the two parties also led to efforts to recall state senators from both parties with Democratic lawmakers being blamed for leaving the state for several weeks in 2011 to prevent the Governor’s bill from receiving a vote while the Republicans were being held accountable for limiting the bargaining rights of the public labor unions. Recall petitions were certified against six of the Republicans and three of the Democrats resulting in two Republican state senators losing their seats in recall elections in the summer of 2011. Subsequently, enough signatures were also gathered to place four more Republican incumbents on the June 2012 ballot. It appears that one has been defeated which will give the Democrats control of the Senate. Republicans faced no challenge to retaining control of the Assembly.

The California 2021 Recall Election

The effort to recall Governor Newsom actually began before the COVID-19 pandemic. The recall petition was one of seven launched against Newsom; recall petitions are common in California—every governor elected in the state since 1968 has faced at least one. The petition itself, launched in February 2020, did not mention the pandemic, but the effort gained traction as the pandemic began. After California courts extended the signature deadline from November 2020 until March 2021 due to the pandemic, the petition officially received over 1.7 million signatures, enough to trigger a recall election.

On September 14, California voters voted on two questions. The first was a simple yes/no vote on whether Newsom should be recalled. The second was who should become governor if Newsom is recalled. Because a majority voted “no” on the first question, Newsom will remain governor. If a majority had voted “yes” on the recall question, then the candidate who received the most votes—even if it is not a majority—would have become governor. Forty-six candidates qualified to appear on the recall ballot, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, businessman and 2018 Republican nominee for governor (losing to Newsom) John Cox, and conservative radio host Larry Elder. No prominent Democrats filed to run. Elder received the most votes of these candidates, but that was rendered moot by Newsom’s comfortable victory on the recall question.