Two Colorado legislators were recalled by the voters Tuesday. While fans of the Second Amendment might see that as a welcome development, anyone concerned with good government should see this as a perfectly wretched precedent and a blueprint for government by special interests.
Differences of opinion about politics or public policy are the legitimate subjects of regular elections, not valid reasons for recalling duly elected officials. Recall should be reserved for instances of outright corruption, clear malfeasance or indisputable incompetence. Disagreeing with a particular vote, however objectionable, does not rise to that level.
State Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and state Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, lost their jobs in the recall vote because they supported gun-control bills introduced in the wake of mass shootings last year in Aurora and Newtown, Conn. The votes were in favor of a 15-round limit on magazines and background checks on private gun sales. Those bills involved no more than minor impositions on a few people but nonetheless touched on what for some is sacred territory.
Critics’ objections notwithstanding, the bills Giron and Morse backed are almost certainly constitutional. (See the opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia in District of Columbia vs. Heller.) They also were limited, openly debated and wholly transparent.
Of course, none of that precludes the idea that they also were wrong, foolish, unworkable or unnecessary. But while certainly legitimate opinions, those criticisms can be applied to any number of legislative acts and in any case are nowhere near what should be the threshold for a recall vote. That difference of opinion should have been expressed in November 2014, not in a special election called for no other reason.
The recall of Giron and Morse was the first since Colorado adopted the procedure in 1912. But with its success, it is unlikely to be the last. For what this has shown is that any sufficiently motivated group effectively can take out a legislator because of a controversial vote on any issue. And the people behind this recall effort are not the only monomaniacs out there.
Having now seen how it is done, what is to stop any committed group from following this example? Pro-life groups or supporters of reproductive rights, greens of all stripes or coal-mining interests (Koch brothers, perhaps), unions or “right-to-work” backers – the list of single-focus groups is never-ending, and a number of them have resources and focus comparable to the gun people. To see how poor a model this vote was for future policy disputes, take the guns out of it and instead consider one or more of those examples.
This also was an unfortunate example of a proxy war. The National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly kicked in a total of $300,000 each. Those defending Morse and Giron raised about $3 million. It is unclear exactly how much recall supporters raised because some of the support for that effort came in the form of independent groups that are not required to report their spending.
This also was a vote with low turnout, which is typical of cases where a few people are intensely interested while most care little. Just 15 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Morse’s recall; 30 percent turned out in Giron’s case.
The problem here is not about guns or even politics. The recall votes will do nothing to reverse the laws that prompted them. Nor will the loss of the two Democrats change control of the state Senate. All this does is further empower single-issue groups and encourage a lousy way to govern.