Recalling Governors: An Overview

by Amy Zacks (contributor)

Updated June 6, 2012; originally posted April 25, 2012


On June 5, 2012 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R) was victorious in a recall election that pitted him against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who had also been his opponent when he won the office in 2010. Walker, who won that race by almost 125,000 votes (five percentage points), did better the second time winning by more than 170,000 votes (6.9 percentage points).

National Picture

Scott Walker was the third governor in U.S. history to face a recall election and the first to emerge victorious. In 1921, North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was removed from office following a dispute about state-owned industries. More recently, Gray Davis of California was recalled in 2003 after he was blamed for the state’s electricity crisis and the overall economic recession. Although Davis was the first governor removed in California, voters in that state had made 32 prior gubernatorial recall attempts including efforts targeting Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson and every other California governor elected since 1968.


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


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.