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A recall election (also called a recall referendum or representative recall) is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote (plebiscite), initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition. Recall has a history dating back to the ancient Athenian democracy. During the American Revolution the Articles of Confederation stipulated that state legislatures might recall delegates from the continental congress. The Virginia Plan, issued at the outset of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, proposed to pair recall with rotation in office, and to apply these dual principles to the lower house of the national legislature.

United States

Along with the initiative, the referendum, and the direct primary, the recall election was one of the major electoral reforms advocated by leaders of the Progressive movement in the United Statesmarker during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although it was initially proposed in William S. U'Ren's Oregon newspaper. Recall elections do not take place at the federal level. The majority of states allow recall elections in local jurisdictions, but only eighteen states permit recall elections to remove state officials.

Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, Lynn Frazier, Governor of North Dakotamarker, was recalled during a dispute about state-owned industries, and in 2003, Governor Gray Davis of Californiamarker was recalled over the state budget.

In Alaskamarker, Georgiamarker, Kansasmarker, Minnesotamarker, Montanamarker, Rhode Islandmarker, and Washingtonmarker, specific grounds are required for a recall. Some form of malfeasance or misconduct while in office must be identified by the petitioners. The target may choose to dispute the validity of the grounds in court, and a court then judges whether the allegations in the petition rise to a level where a recall is necessary. In the other eleven states that permit state-wide recall, no grounds are required and recall petitions may be circulated for any reason. However, the target is permitted to submit responses to the stated reasons for recall.

The minimum number of signatures and the time limit to qualify a recall vary between states. In addition, the handling of recalls once they qualify differs. In some states, a recall triggers a simultaneous special election, where the vote on the recall, as well as the vote on the replacement if the recall succeeds, are on the same ballot. In the 2003 California recall election, over 100 candidates appeared on the replacement portion of the ballot. In other states, a separate special election is held after the target is recalled, or a replacement is appointed by the Governor or some other state authority.

Successful recalls

Unsuccessful recalls

Unsuccessful attempts to qualify recall elections


The Province of British Columbiamarker enacted representative recall in 1995. In that province, voters in a provincial riding can petition to have a sitting representative removed from office, even a Premier presently leading a government. If enough registered voters sign the petition, the Speaker of the legislature announces before the House that the member has been recalled and a by-election follows as soon as possible, giving voters the opportunity to replace the politician in question. By January 2003, 22 recall efforts had been launched. No one has been recalled so far, but one representative, Paul Reitsma, resigned in 1998 when it looked as if the petition to recall him would have enough signatures to spur a recall election. Reitsma resigned during the secondary verification stage, and the recall count ended.


Article 72 of the Constitution of Venezuela enables the recall of any elected representative, including the President. This provision was used in the Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004, which attempted to remove President Hugo Chavez:

Article 72: All [...] offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation.
Once one-half of the term of office to which an official has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters representing at least 20% of the registered voters in the affected constituency may petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke that official's mandate.
When a number of voters equal to or greater than the number of those who elected the official vote in favour of the recall, provided that a number of voters equal to or greater than 25% of the total number of registered voters vote in the recall referendum, the official's mandate shall be deemed revoked and immediate action shall be taken to fill the permanent vacancy as provided for by this Constitution and by law.

See also

Books, articles and monographs

  • Paolo Ronchi, UNA FORMA DI DEMOCRAZIA DIRETTA: L'ESPERIENZA DEL RECALL NEGLI STATI UNITI D'AMERICA, in "Quaderni dell'Osservatorio elettorale", num. 61, 2009, pp. 99-130, also published in [in Italian]


  1. Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 43.4
  2. Article V of the Articles of Confederation provided, "a power reserved to each state, to recall its delegates, or any of them, at any time within the year, and to send others in their stead, for the remainder of the Year."
  4. Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series, Corrected List of Mayors, 1867-1996
  5. Frank Church Chronology

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