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After months of political theater and posturing, Democrats in Wisconsin last Tuesday collected enough signatures to initiate a recall election against Scott Walker, the Republican governor of the state.
In Wisconsin, as is the case with most states in the United States, governors are elected for four-year terms, with elections occurring on a fixed schedule. Events in the state that have unfolded since shortly after Walker’s inauguration in January 2011 have led to an upset in the normal system. Rather than potentially run for office again in 2014, the governor could find his political position in jeopardy as early as this June by way of the recall. In a recall election, citizens have the opportunity to remove a politician by popular vote before that politician has finished his or her term.
The recall election campaign was largely sparked by a battle over legislation concerning public-sector unions in Wisconsin. In many states, workers’ unions have the right to use collective bargaining – a process where a union of many workers is legally the same as one entity – to negotiate wages and benefits.
Democrats and other liberal groups have historically championed collective bargaining as a way to ensure workers’ rights and check employee abuse, while Republicans and conservatives argue it leads to excess budgetary strain as well as overspending on workers’ benefits.In February of 2011, Governor Walker proposed a bill that would, in addition to mandating changes to benefits and pensions for public-sector union workers, largely eliminate collective-bargaining rights among unions. A series of protests and the departure of Democratic state senators from the state prevented the passage of the bill until March, when the largely Republican senate passed a modified version with no Democrats present.
Furthering the controversy, legal challenges prevented the bill from going into effect for months. The bill was struck down in May of 2011 by Judge Maryann Sumi, but then brought back in June after her ruling was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Since then, the Democrats have started on a series of recall elections, starting with six Republican state senators − two of whom were recalled − and moving up to the governor himself.
Momentum built rapidly once the Democrats announced they would attempt to initiate a recall election against Walker. In Wisconsin, the process could only begin if enough signatures – 25% of the total number of votes in the previous election – were gathered from state residents within 60 days of the official start of the recall effort.
Democrats were able to gather 500,000 signatures less than a month after the campaign began in November. As of last Tuesday, Democrats announced that they had gathered a much larger total of one million signatures; that amounts to roughly double the required 540,208 signatures required to initiate the elections.
Wisconsin is not the only state where collective bargaining rights have been the subject of extensive controversy. Other states enacted their own restrictions on collective bargaining after the Wisconsin bill passed, including Massachusetts.
Responses have been varied across states. While the Massachusetts law to limit collective bargaining rights has remained on the books, Ohio’s far more stringent version was overturned by voters by referendum in November of 2011. Wisconsin is the first state, however, where the opposition has managed to initiate a recall campaign against the governor over the issue.
The implications of a successful recall election against Governor Walker could be profound. Only two other states – North Dakota in 1921 and California in 2003 – have had their governors removed through such a procedure. People from across the nation have been drawn into the debacle, which has been seen in the past months as a microcosm of the growing split between conservative and liberal interests in the current American political climate.
For now, the main task is counting and verifying the one million signatures that the Democrats have brought before the Wisconsin government. The Government Accountability Board has been charged with this task, spending the next few weeks and months painstakingly counting each line and verifying the authenticity of voters who want to see the election go through. For the rest of the nation’s – and WPI’s – onlookers, the live webcam feed of the action will need to suffice.