Following on the success of the 2011 ouster of state Senate President Russell Pearce, immigrants’ rights groups and others are now aiming at a more prominent official — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The recall attempt has already seen some bizarre theater, but a look at the use of the recall around the country will show that the anti- Arpaio forces have a massive hill to climb in order to get anywhere near the ballot.
The recall fight itself has already been the scene of some absurd behavior, with some pro-Arpaio groups looking to the courts to stop the recall. A pro-Arpaio group called the “Citizens To Protect Fair Election Results” sent a cease and desist letter to recall petitioners, claiming that the recall attempt “rises even to the level of criminal conspiracy and enterprise…” and that it “violated the free speech, equal protection and due process rights of the majority of county voters who re-elected the sheriff.” While this type of argument is frequently made against recalls as a political statement, it is rare to see it used to threaten legal action. Most likely any such claim would be laughed out of court.
There is also a more legitimate question of whether Arpaio can be recalled so soon after being re-elected. Arizona has a constitutional provision, which mimics that of many other states, stating that recalls cannot be launched until six months after an official is elected. However, unlike in most states, Arizona law appears to say that does not hold true for a re-election. Under this reading, there shouldn’t be any concern for the petitioners to start gathering signatures. In fact, they claim to already have 50,000.
These legal issues may not stop the recall — though they are likely to cost the recall proponents some money in battling them. It is actually practical considerations that are the bigger concern. The sheer number of signatures needed to get on the ballot, 335,000 valid signatures from registered voters, is incredibly daunting. To put that in context, only three recalls in U.S. history have gotten on the ballot needing more signatures — California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in 2012.
This would be by far the largest number of signatures ever needed to recall a local official.
There have been plenty of recalls attempted — 47 of California governors alone — but rarely do they get on the ballot. Even those that do make it that far need many fewer signatures. The recall attempt against Arizona Gov. Evan Meacham in 1988, (which was short- circuited by his impeachment and conviction) needed far fewer signatures — 216,746. There have been plenty of attempts to get massive amounts of signatures for other officials, but they invariably fail. In Michigan, petitioners reportedly got 500,000 signatures to recall the governor. But that was nowhere near enough to get on the ballot.
It is not just the sheer number of signatures that will cause a problem. Ancillary evidence suggests Arizona’s election officials may take a stricter approach to signatures than in other states. In some recent recall attempts, Arizona seems to have tossed out signatures more frequently than other states. This would mean that the signature gatherers would need significantly more than 335,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
There is no clear answer on how many signatures are likely to fail.
One Michigan observer claims that a 15 percent failure rate is a good rule of thumb. In California in 2003, the signature failure rate for the Gray Davis recall was 18 percent. Due to a quirk in Wisconsin’s law — the state allows all eligible voters to sign, as opposed to Arizona and other states that require the signers to be registered — the Scott Walker recall is not a good comparison.
In the Russell Pearce recall, petitioners submitted more than 18,000 signatures, of which 10,365 were ruled valid, a more than 40 percent failure rate. The attempted recall of Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski is an even stronger example. The petitioners needed 2,329 signatures. They originally handed in more than 5,000, and they missed by 24 signatures. If these two notable rejection rates are a guide, the anti-Arpaio forces may need more than 500,000 to get to Election Day.
Another potential hurdle is that sheriffs are not likely to face a recall vote. Since 2011, there have been more than 325 recalls that have taken place in the U.S. Research suggests that only two have been against sheriffs, one in Colorado and the other in North Dakota (and both sheriffs survived the vote). There have been a number of attempts against sheriffs or police chiefs, including one prominent attempt against the San Francisco sheriff after he was nearly kicked out of office, but they have not gotten anywhere near the signatures to get on the ballot.
It could be Arpaio, who is likely the most well-known local law enforcement officer in the country, is different. The Arpaio recall would not be based on malfeasances but on more straightforward political or policy reasons. There are not too many voters who don’t have an opinion on Arpaio, and, as he may be seen as more of a political figure than many of the other sheriffs, he is not likely to gain the deference from possible signers.
The potential recall of Sheriff Arpaio is a sure fire political maelstrom for the state. However, the basic hurdles endemic to the recall mean that the anti-Arpaio forces have their work cut out for them.
— Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.