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Recalling Local Officials Is An ‘Intense, Scrappy Challenge’

A volunteer shows signatures the recall effort has collected so far.

A volunteer shows signatures the recall effort has collected so far. Ward 2 Citizens Recall

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Connecting state and local government leaders

In Washington D.C., an attempt to recall a city council member shows how difficult it is to organize this kind of campaign at a local level.

After launching recall campaigns against governors in Colorado, New Jersey, and Oregon, organizers have complained about the high bar they must meet to get a recall election on the ballot. But at the local level, organizers of a recall petition against Washington, D.C. City Councilmember Jack Evans say they might face an even tougher challenge. 

Adam Eidinger is a constituent of Evans who has already led three successful citywide campaigns to get initiatives on the ballot: one for a $15 minimum wage, one for marijuana legalization, and one that would preserve the minimum wage for tipped workers. On those campaigns, Eidinger said he could tap large budgets because individuals or organizations were not limited in the amount they could donate to ballot initiative or referendum campaigns. That money allowed them to hire signature collectors full-time—workers who once obtained 35,000 signatures in a single week. But he called a city council recall an “intense, scrappy challenge,” because the campaign has a $500 individual contribution cap and a largely volunteer-led signature drive.

“When you’re doing a citywide initiative, you can go to a lot of places,” he said. “But with city council, we’re restricted to one ward. It’s not easy. You can’t keep going back to the same place.”

Eidinger is seeking Evans’ removal from office over several scandals that the councilmember has allegedly been involved in recently, including a no-bid contract involving his former business partner that Evans did not recuse himself from, his business relationships with companies that have had dealings with the D.C. government, and Evans’ attempt to push an investigation into the competitor of a company he sits on the board of.

Some of these things have already caught up with Evans, the longest serving member of the D.C. Council. This month, he was removed as chair of the finance committee and is no longer on the Metro board. “He holds less power now thanks to the recall and community outreach,” Eidinger said. “But unfortunately, not all councilmembers are willing to hold him accountable.”

Evans did not return repeated requests for comment, but has denied wrongdoing. In his response that is printed on the recall petition, Evans did not address specific grievances, but called the argument for his recall “misleading.”

So far, the campaign to recall him has around 1,800 signatures, out of the roughly 5,000 they’ll need to collect by November 18—180 days from the day the petition was approved. Eidinger said collecting signatures has been particularly difficult this summer, as D.C. has experienced some of the hottest weather in recent decades. “This is the political Olympics. It's physical,” he said.

He isn’t alone in feeling like collecting council recall signatures is a Herculean feat. One organizer of a council recall in a Maine town recently compared the effort to collect signatures to the story of David and Goliath.

It isn’t easy, though, to calculate how many city-level recalls there are, or what the rate of success is for those who attempt it. Joseph Zimmerman, a professor of political science at the University of Albany, in his book about state and local recalls, notes that collecting data on the recall of state officials is relatively straightforward because few efforts have been launched, and they are all compiled in a central repository for each state. “Collecting data and information on the recall of local government elected officers, in contrast, is a difficult task because of the lack of central [repositories]...There is no count of the total number of local governments where a recall can be employed,” he writes. 

Estimates as to the number of local officials nationwide hover over 500,000, but there are no estimates about how many have faced recall elections.

Officials at the local level also often face different recall charges than those at the state level. “The charges against local government officers in recall petitions not surprisingly cover a variety of subjects not found in recall petitions for state government officers,” Zimmerman writes. Sometimes, people try to recall elected officials for firing the city manager, interfering with the zoning board, violating state open meeting laws, or just plain rudeness. 

Thirty-nine states have provisions allowing for recalls. Among those, each state has different standards for recalling local officials, including when petitions can be filed, how many signatures need to be collected, and whether there are specific grounds on which a recall can be requested. (Some municipalities also set their own local rules). While most states don’t have specific grounds for recalls, the most common ones are misconduct, incompetence, malfeasance, or failure to perform duties. Maine appears to have the strictest grounds—requiring conviction of a crime against the municipality that occurred during an official’s term. In Florida, the law takes a broader view of what can spark a recall effort, including drunkenness and conviction of a felony “involving moral turpitude.”  

In two states, Minnesota and New Mexico, there has to be a hearing to determine if a recall petition shows probable cause and convincing evidence. 

In the District of Columbia, a petition requires the signatures of 10% of the registered voters in the affected ward or wards to force an election to determine the elected official’s fate. Any petition form must be approved by the Board of Elections before it can be circulated and signed.

Eidinger said those requirements can be onerous for a variety of reasons. The District is home to many people who aren’t registered to vote there (or those who registered to vote and then left), like students and interns, and foreign-born people who work in diplomatic offices and therefore can’t vote. There are also people who inaccurately believe that their government employment restricts them from signing a recall petition, he said.

The petition for Evans’ recall needs 10% of the 51,590 people registered to vote in Ward 2, which spans D.C.’s downtown, and central neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Georgetown. But Eidinger said he highly doubts that there are 50,000 people physically present in the ward who are registered to vote. He estimates that the number of signatures required is therefore actually closer to 20% of registered voters in the ward.

Even in the face of that challenge, Eidinger persists because he said the recall is both necessary and historic (no D.C. councilmember has ever been recalled). Eidinger said he fears that because five candidates are now challenging Evans in the June 2020 primary, they may split the vote, so forcing a recall election would be the best chance for removing the councilman from office. 

If there is a recall election, Eidinger is confident Evans would lose. “Jack is now synonymous with corruption. I think he will lose handily,” he said. “It will just be a question of whether his opponent gets 60% or 70% of the vote.”

But Eidinger also stressed that the recall is about much more than just Jack Evans himself. “Republicans in Congress are using the corruption in the D.C. government against us to say that we don’t deserve statehood,” he said, referencing the long-sought goal of many residents to make the District the 51st state. “Honestly, I can understand why they say that. But we can show them that if the council won’t clean our house, the people will. It’s the only way to bring integrity back to the District.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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