Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Reports

The Real History of the Recall

Yesterday, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted my op-ed describing the history surrounding enactment of the Wisconsin recall, I expected the usual suspects to flood the comment thread.  The process usually goes something like this: I spend weeks swimming in microfilm and documents at the State Historical Society in order to produce a fact-based report.  Then, anonymous commenters explain how wrong I am because, well, they know how to turn on their computer.

One comment early in the morning struck me, mostly because it contained complete sentences.  The commenter’s name was “Fallone,” and criticized me for failing to mention the circumstances of the 1911 recall effort, in which the recall resolution was amended to exempt the judiciary from the recall process because some senators thought it would be abused by socialists.  Of course, in the report that served as the basis for my op-ed, I talk all about the 1911 recall effort and the move to exempt judges; but given the limited space allotted to me by the Journal Sentinel, I didn’t mention it yesterday.  The commenter ended his critique of me by saying “The Journal Sentinel does the public a disservice by printing polemics masquerading as objective history.”


By 4:34 P.M. , Marquette law professor Ed Fallone had read my original piece, and -oops – realized I discussed everything he wanted me to about the 1911 election in my “polemic” writings.  But obviously, he had it out for me, so he needed a new specious line of argument, which he lays out on the Marquette University Law School Faculty blog.  Not only is his critique of my research weak, it doesn’t even lay a finger on my central thesis; that the recall isn’t being used in any way envisioned by the constitutional amendment’s original authors.

Fallone begins with this questionable syllogism:

The original push to add recall provisions to the Wisconsin Constitution, conducted during the 1911 legislative term, was clearly modeled on the nationwide campaign to adopt recall provisions.  I have previously written about the history of the recall movement here.  None of the other states that recall advocates in Wisconsin looked to as models in 1911 had exempted executive branch officials from the recall power.  Moreover, far from being directed at judges, the original provisions in 1911 were amended in response to criticism so that they exempted judges from the scope of the recall (see page 139 of this history by the Legislative Research Bureau).

Given this record, it is impossible to conclude that the original legislation adopting recall provisions was primarily directed at the removal of elected judges.  However, the original legislation was rejected by the voters in 1914, and did not become part of the Wisconsin Constitution.  Mr. Schneider appears to argue that when the recall provisions were introduced once again, in 1923 by State Senator Henry Huber, they were no longer intended to apply broadly to all elected officials.  Apparently we are to believe that between 1911 and 1923 the intent of the recall provision had changed from an intent to apply the recall to all elected officials except judges to an intent to apply the recall provisions primarily to judges.

Is it really the position of a Marquette law professor that two legislatures, a dozen years apart and comprised by almost entirely different members, could come to two different conclusions about how the recall amendment should be drafted?  The move to exempt judges in 1911 was due to the concerns of a handful of senators fearful of socialist dirty tricks; it’s impossible that either those senators were either gone, or their fear of socialists had been ameliorated?  Is it far-fetched to think that in 1923, new legislators buoyed by the progressive surge in popularity, thought they could pass a more expansive recall amendment?

Take, for example, the issue of concealed firearms.  A decade ago, legislators drafted a very modest proposal to allow concealed-carry.  It never made it past the governor’s veto.  Now, ten years later, emboldened by a changing political landscape, the GOP passed a much more expansive concealed-carry law, knowing many of their political obstacles had been eliminated.  By Fallone’s reasoning, this new law never would have passed because it was rejected 10 years ago.

I have a mountain of evidence that suggests that the only real question on the ballot in 1926 was whether judges should be recalled.  Fallone’s evidence is simply his confusion that different legislatures twelve years apart draft different constitutional amendments for different reasons.

Fallone also criticizes me because, in reaching my conclusion, I use statements by opponents of the recall:

Second, it is never proper to attempt to divine the original intent of a constitutional provision by relying upon the arguments of its opponents.  Almost all of Mr. Schneider’s evidence in support of his proferred interpretation comes from editorials and statements of persons who opposed the ratification of the recall provisions.  The statements of opponents are no evidence at all of the intention of supporters.

Of course, he ignores the sections where I use statements by supporters of the recall to demonstrate that it would be used almost solely against judges.  Take this editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal, a paper that supported the recall of executive offices:

“Men and women of Wisconsin, going to vote Tuesday, will be confronted by the recall amendment.  Do we want it?

This is not a very hard or complicated thing to understand.  The proposal is that if 25 per cent of the number who voted for governor at the last election petition for it an election shall be held to say whether an elective officer stays or goes.

In Wisconsin, this would amount to little in the case of any official except a judge.  For the men who propose it have hedged it with such conditions that an official could not be recalled until he had been in office at least 13 1/2 months.  What was left on a 2-year term would not be important enough to hold a recall election on…

The best thing the proposers of the recall seem able to bring up is that they have so hedged it with restrictions that it would be hard to use.  A fine reason surely!  If a recall is needed, it ought be made easy to use – not so hard that only wealthy interests or organizations which have piled up large funds for political purposes can employ it.”

A later editorial explains that while they favor the idea of the recall, they oppose the way it would affect judges:

“In our judgment, [the recall] is an instrument of popular control of public administration which is useful as applied to executive officials.  Its use as to these, we believe, is in its potentiality more largely than its practice, because the frequency of our elections of administrative officers gives the whip-hand over them in any case, and so the recall as it affects them serves more than anything else as an admonition.

We believe the recall as applied to the judiciary, however, positively to be detrimental to public service…”

Virtually every account of the recall amendment in major Wisconsin newspapers in October and November of 1926 referred to it as the “judicial recall,” or the “recall of judges.”  If Fallone would like to do his own research to prove otherwise, he is welcome to it.  Here are just a few:

Burr Jones Asks Defeat of Recall: Ex-Justice of Supreme Court, in a Letter to Journal, Points out Evils of Measure – Wisconsin State Journal, October 29, 1926.

Lawyer Supports Judicial Recall, Says Judiciary Should Not be Exempt, Milwaukee Journal, November 1, 1926

Lawyers of State Unite to Beat Recall Measure, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 26, 1926

Lawyers Unite Against Recall, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 26, 1926

Prelate Also Opposes Recall of Judges, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 31, 1926

On Wisconsin: The Recall, Wisconsin State Journal, October 31, 1926

Vote “No” on Recall, Bar Advises, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 28, 1926

“Judicial Recall,” Wisconsin State Journal, October 29, 1926

Furthermore, if Fallone would like to point to any politician in the state with a 2-year term who has been recalled, or who has even been the subject of an attempted recall, even in the height of recall fever in which we find ourselves right now, I’d be happy to correct myself.  But all the evidence shows that it was the understanding then, has been the understanding throughout the state’s history, and is currently the understanding that it is implausible to recall politicians with 2-year terms.

We get it.  Ed Fallone likes the recall.  In his own derivative history of the recall, Fallone cites the need to lessen the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has become a shibboleth for individuals who are either anti-Scott Walker or who don’t have proper ventilation in their offices.  The only people who say ALEC is secretly pulling Scott Walker’s strings are people who are trying to defeat Walker.  But wait – weren’t we supposed to not draw conclusions based solely on someone’s opponents?

I am willing to show my work.  The professor has none to show.


Public Financing of Campaigns: Anatomy of a Failed Idea

Today, WPRI released a report by Mike Nichols (with research assistance by me) that delves into the origin of public financing for campaigns in Wisconsin.

While the intent of using taxpayer dollars to run campaigns was noble – supporters thought it would lead to more competitive elections and reduced special interest influence – the actual effect has been just the opposite. In fact, often times politicians (77% of those that take the grant are Democrats) turn right around and funnel the public money to campaign purposes that are outside the intent of the law:

(State Representative Spencer) Black, for example, received $4,155 from the public fund on Sept. 30, 1996. This is the same year he gave a total of $4,775 in cash or in-kind contributions to other politicians or committees, including $1,200 to the Dane County Conservation Alliance-a special interest committee registered with the state.

On Sept. 30, 2004, state Rep. Mark Pocan accepted $5,574 from the public fund. According to his campaign reports, on that very same day he made a $1,000 contribution to the Unity Fund-the Democratic Party of Wisconsin campaign account that was used, at least in part that year, to support Democratic candidates at the national level.

Hintz received his most recent public funding, about $6,000, on Sept. 27, 2008. In the month that followed, he gave $1,000 to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

There’s more:

  • In September of 2002, Bob Jauch accepted 11,932 from the WECF. In November, he made a $5,000 contribution to the State Senate Democratic Committee. He won with 62.1% of the vote.
  • In September of 2006, Jauch accepted a $2,425 contribution from WECF. In November of 2006, he made a $1,000 contribution to the SSDC, and won with 62.3% of the vote.
  • On September 25, 2002, Russ Decker accepted a WECF grant of $11,932. During the same election, Decker spent $6,300 for a poll – for a race he won with 68% of the vote. In December, Decker transferred $1,000 to the SSDC.
  • In September of 2006, Joe Parisi accepted $5,263 from the WECF. In the same election cycle, he donated $1,000 to the Democratic Party of WI, en route to winning with 75.6% of the vote.

Furthermore, public financing hasn’t done anything to improve the “competitiveness” of state campaigns.

Of the 47 winners that took the grant, 38 (81%) were incumbents. Of the 9 winners that were not incumbents, 6 of them beat incumbents (Hines, Freese, Skindrud, Loeffelholz, Weber, and Kreibich) and 3 ran in open seats.

  • The average vote for the 47 winners who accepted a WECF grant: 63.4%
  • The average vote for the 126 losers who accepted a WECF grant: 39.3%

Of the 126 losing candidates, only 11 (8.7%) came within 5% of the winner. Only 24 (19%) came within 10% of the winner.

More from the article:

Politics in Wisconsin is, at the very least, not a game for outsiders. Spencer Black hasn’t received less than 87% of a vote since 1992 and now has more than $146,000 in his campaign account.

In 2002, Republican Steve Nass accepted $7,013 in public funding and went on to beat Leroy Watson 87% to 13%. In 2006, the Whitewater-area representative took $5,963 and beat a self-described “naturist,” Scott Woods, 66% to 34%.

If the fund helps anyone, it seems, it is incumbents, the legislators who have the power to make the laws and amend them. Or get rid of them, but don’t.

One byproduct of heavy favorites receiving the taxpayer funded grant is that they often use the grant to build their campaign accounts to levels that make them unbeatable. More on Spencer Black:

Spencer Black, the longtime Democratic representative from Madison, has repeatedly taken the public subsidy while building up big surpluses in his campaign account. First elected to the Assembly in 1984, Black has been reelected a dozen times. Up until 2000 (when opponents just gave up and stopped running against him), he applied for the tax dollars almost every time he ran.

Records from the first few elections have been lost by the state, but he was given more than $18,000 in taxpayer dollars in 1992, 1994 and 1996 alone, according to the Government Accountability Board (GAB). Those were years in which Black built his campaign fund up from a surplus of $39,000 in 1992 to more than $100,000 by 1997.

So the same fund that was supposed to make campaigns more competitive actually strengthens incumbents to the point where they can’t be beaten.

Finally, it’s important to point out that while the dollar amounts may not be large, there is a significant band of people urging the program be expanded. The article mentions Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign saying the program is failing because it’s not big enough. So this should serve as a lesson to those who think even more taxpayer money should be used for campaigns – something the public clearly opposes.

Read the full report here.

A Term Limits Retort

Last week, my report recommending term limits for Wisconsin legislators was released. Reaction both for and against term limits has been rolling in, and it cuts across ideological lines. Conservative blogger Owen Robinson opposes them. Conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes supports them.

Liberal Ed Garvey’s position is, as usual, incomprehensible. He claims I have a “hidden agenda” to have “well financed opponents” take over the Legislature. But when he ran a failed campaign for governor against Tommy Thompson in 1998, Garvey said:

Thompson has amassed so much influence during his record span in the governor’s post that it’s time to enact term limits, Garvey said.

”He’s been in there so long that every agency of government has been dominated by his intellectual playmates,” Garvey said. ”And not only that, he’s built up the kind of campaign war chest that makes it impossible for him to be challenged.”

This is pretty much par for the course with Garvey. The next time he orders a pizza and it doesn’t have enough pepperoni on it, he’ll probably angrily blog about how it’s WPRI’s fault.

Perhaps the most interesting voice in opposition is that of the Capital Times’ John Nichols, who surprisingly gives me credit for “diagnosing” the Legislature’s problems correctly, but labels term limits a “lame” remedy. His editorial is even-handed (which is nice, since I have occasionally – and for good reason – been harshly critical of him), but still contains some questionable assertions.

For instance, Nichols says my “proposal would mirror the failed schemes enacted in other states, such as California, where legislatures have been rendered almost dysfunctional.” This is one of the reasons the effects of term limits are so difficult to measure – because states’ laws and situations are so disparate – and why I specifically cite California in my report.

First of all California is a Banana Republic not because of term limits – its main problem is the statewide referendum process, in which citizens directly enact laws, many of which directly contradict one another. No such process exists in Wisconsin. Furthermore, in order to pass a budget in California, the Legislature needs a 2/3rds vote – which leads to some disastrous remedies for their fiscal problems. Most notably, their state debt is off the charts, as Democrats try to buy Republican votes. None of these, of course, have to do with term limits.

Nichols goes on:

Wisconsinites have historically said “no thanks” to term limits because we are too smart to be suckered by political gimmicks – and because we have a taste for democracy.

Not exactly. “Wisconsinites” haven’t said “no thanks” to term limits – Wisconsin legislators have shunned them, for obvious reasons – they like the job security. Polls consistently show public support for term limits – two years ago, 72% of Wisconsin residents said they support them. In fact, in 20 of the 21 states that have enacted term limits, they have been imposed via citizen initiative – not by the Legislature. So “Wisconsinites” support them – it’s only the legislators who do not.

Nichols makes a pitch for public funding of campaigns, commonly referred to as campaign finance “reform.” He adds that “(t)hese changes would also reduce the ability of special-interest groups to influence the process in a manner that is far more destructive than aging and unproductive legislators.”

Actually, term limits could drastically reduce the influence of special interests over legislators. When elected officials sit in office for decades, they have plenty of time to cozy up to special interests, becoming inextricably linked to their agendas. Term limits breaks that never-ending link. And while it doesn’t guarantee any elected official won’t be corrupt (no law ever will), it means special interests will have to work a lot harder to maintain their foothold within the Wisconsin Legislature.

Finally, Nichols makes a point good enough to reproduce in its entirety here:

And here’s one more reform proposal: If you want legislators to write more bills, clean up the budget process. In recent years, the budget has become a catch-all that is jammed with policy initiatives. When the budget drafting process is the be-all and end-all of the legislative session, a handful of lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee become the definitional players, while everyone else sits on the sidelines. And debates are scrapped in favor of back-room bargaining.

There is one final criticism of the report that I have been hearing primarily from conservatives. In the report, I point out that the typical legislator is getting older, staying in office longer, and working less. As evidence of their lack of work, I point out that legislators are introducing fewer bills than ever. To which many conservatives say, “GOOD!”

While I am sympathetic with the idea that fewer bills means fewer bad laws, there are couple points to make here. First of all, there are a lot of bad laws on the books that should be repealed. And it takes a bill to repeal a bad law.

For instance, a couple of years ago, lawmakers realized that church potlucks might be illegal under state law. It took a bill to allow granny to bring her peach cobbler to help raise money for the church. More seriously, we recently found out via a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative report that up to 12,000 DNA samples may never have been collected from felons, thereby posing a significant safety risk. Now legislators are proposing a more rigid DNA collection process. It takes a bill to do that. Not all bills are bad.

Furthermore, there are at least a dozen ways listed in the report that show how the Legislature has changed – the lack of bills introduced is merely one. When put together, all the evidence paints a picture of a typical legislator as being older, less active, and much less likely to lose. The issue of bills introduced is but one aspect of a broad report.