Councilwoman Scott: New Recall Proposal Is Unrealistic: Future March City Voting Should Be Moved To November

Monday, July 9, 2012 - by Deborah Scott

Chattanooga’s charter provisions, state law and a lawsuit to recall the mayor is prompting City Council to clarify: How to Recall a Local Elected Official.  The minimum requirements for recall are subject to debate.  One key question is: How many petition signatures should be required to put an elected official on a ballot for recall?  The proposal on Council’s current agenda suggests that the city should increase the number of signatures required by adopting the state’s recall criteria.

Chattanooga’s City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposal to redefine the legal procedure to place the question of recall on the November ballot.  The topic will be discussed prior to the vote in committee. Changing the recall provision would first require a change of Chattanooga’s City Charter. Charter changes cannot go before voters unless a majority of Council members agree on the criteria for recall and allow it to be placed on the ballot. Voters will be allowed to vote “yes” or “no” on the change approved by Council.  If citizens wish to give specific input to their Council representatives about the criteria or minimum number of signatures required for recall, they should speak now.            

Doesn’t state law dictate local recall procedures? 
State law allows “home rule” cities, like Chattanooga, the latitude to determine the local requirements for recall of local elected officials. Municipal recall rules vary. Some cities have steep criteria requirements and others only require a majority vote by its legislative (City Council) branch to remove an official.

The rules for recall of a state official are described in Tennessee’s Code Annotated Section 2-5-151.  The number of petition signatures required to recall a Tennessee state elected official is based on a percentage of “eligible voters,” while the city’s current number is based on actual voters in the last election for the office recalled. The state requires signatures totaling 15 percent of eligible voters. Chattanooga’s charter requires petition signatures totaling 50 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last election for the office subject to recall.   

State or local rules, what difference does it make?  
In most cases, adoption of the state law would require collection of a higher number of signatures to bring a recall vote before the public. The signatures must be collected over a specific time frame, so the   higher the minimum, the more difficult it would be to recall a candidate.  Some argue that it should be hard to recall a candidate, because nuisance recalls can be counterproductive to governance. However, a recall petition number which sets the number too high could in effect extinguish realistic opportunities for recall.       

Are all state recall provisions alike?
Recall procedures for states vary.  According to the “National Conference of State Legislatures,” (www.ncsl.org), Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin base state recall petitions on a percentage of the votes cast in the last election for the official being recalled. Six especially efficient states also pair the recall election with the simultaneous voter selection of the replacement candidate. Votes on the ballot determine IF the person will be recalled. On the same ballot, voters decide who the replacement will be, IF the majority of voters approve the recall.  
 
What moves eligible voters to vote? 
Statistics across the nation frequently show low turnouts in local elections. Presidential elections garner the highest voter participation rate.  Presidential primaries and congressional elections command a lower turnout. Off-year or Mid-year congressional elections generally show even less voter participation. Local election participation is very low in Chattanooga. Mayoral races can yield 18 percent or less of eligible voters. Many registered voters never vote in local elections.
 
According to the study “Municipal Institutions & Voter Turnout in Local Elections,” published in  Urban Affairs Review, (vol. 38, #5, May 2003, p. 645-668) several variables influence participation in local elections.  The variable having the greatest impact is the timing of the local election. Municipal elections, when paired with presidential elections, significantly increase voter responses.  Local off-year election turnouts, (i.e. not paired with presidential elections) ranged from 14-24 percent participation. 
 
How active are Chattanooga voters in municipal elections and what affects the numbers?  
Statistics for municipal elections overseen by the Hamilton County Election Commission prove Chattanooga’s local election voters are a smaller group of the total registered voters. Chattanooga voters are far more active in presidential elections than local elections. Chattanooga’s local election voting habits is far from unique. Fair Vote: Center for Voting and Democracy (www. fairvote.org) explains:  “Low turnout is most pronounced in off-year elections for state legislators and local officials as well as primaries.”
 
Why don’t more Chattanoogans vote in municipal elections?
Chattanooga elects its mayor and City Council representatives every four years in March. The next municipal election will occur March 2013.  The election date is always an off-year and an off month.  This date always follows the busy November elections for President and Congress. From December to March, voters experience “voter fatigue.” People are consumed with work and the holidays. They show definite signs of apathy to all things political late November through March. Many find the idea of traveling back to the polls to vote in the March cold wind very unappealing.  Still others do not participate because they fail to see a relationship between their lives and those who make city decisions. 
 
CONCLUSIONS:
1.       The new City Council recall proposal is unrealistic because it is based on all eligible voters. 
 
2.       Voters are smart enough to navigate a longer November ballot which is inclusive of city state and national candidates.
 
3.       Combining the March and November elections will save citizen time and the cost of holding a separate March election.
 
4.       If the date for city elections moved from March to the prior November or August, voter participation would increase. The pairing of national and local election dates would increase civic participation and broaden the responsibility for election and recall decisions.
 
5.       The minimum number of petition signatures should be based on a substantial portion (50 percent) of the number of votes cast in the election of the person subject to recall.  This provision is already in Chattanooga’s Charter.
 
6.       Add ‘term limits’ for City Council members. Two consecutive terms as a member of City Council member is sufficient.         

Any decision on resetting the date of election for municipal offices would not alter the date of the March 2013 election. It could apply to the next election cycle and would likely temporarily shorten the term of those elected March 2013 or those elected in run-off elections mid-April 2013.                 
 
                Have ideas? Go to www.chattanooga.gov  and click “City Council.” Share your thoughts with your representatives.  

Deborah Scott
Scott_D@chattanooga.gov
423-425-7858
District 1 City Council Representative


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