The Wisconsin recall elections that will take place Tuesday provide one of the most remarkable accountability moments in modern American history. After Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies used their control of the executive and legislative branches of state government to attack labor rights, local democracy, public education and basic services, mass demonstrations erupted across the state—culminating in an early-March protest outside the state Capitol that drew 150,000 people to one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history.
Despite the protests, despite polls that showed broad opposition to the governor’s agenda, Walker’s legislative allies continued to advance their wrecking-crew agenda.
So the Wisconsin movement dusted off an old accountability tool developed during the era of Populist and Progressive reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the recall. Wisconsin is one of nineteen American states that allow citizens to collect signatures on petitions and force sitting official to face a special election.
In Wisconsin, six of the Republican state senators who voted with Walker will face recall elections on Tuesday. While the labor and community forces that organized the recall drives had little trouble collecting the tens of thousands of signatures needed to force the election, they faced unprecedented obstacles in getting to this point.
Terrified by the threat to his authority, Walker and his allies tried to thwart the recall drive with procedural, legal and electoral challenges—going so far as to file “fake” Democratic challengers, all of whom lost to real Democrats in July 12 primaries. Walker allies also launched recall drives against a half-dozen Democratic senators, on the theory that defeating Democrats might allow them to offset losses by Republicans. (Only three of the Republican petition drives attracted sufficient support to force recalls of Democrats; one of the targeted Democrats has already been re-elected, while two others face tests August 16.)
With the approach of Tuesday’s election, Walker’s allies in national movements to privatize public schools, undermine unions and create a pay-to-play politics that favors corporate interests over those of citizens and communities have pumped millions of dollars into local elections with an eye toward defeating the Democratic challenges.
So what is the state of play?
Here is an FAQ that answers key questions:
What is the point of the recalls?
Democrats have no real ability to check and balance Walker at this point. If they win a total of three seats in the state Senate, they will shift control of the chamber and loosen the governor’s iron grip on state government—a grip that extends to the judicial branch, where Walker’s allies have used their narrow control of the state’s seven-member Supreme Court to support legally-dubious gubernatorial and legislative moves.
The best way to understand the numbers is this: nine recall elections (six targeting Republicans, three targeting Democrats) are being held this summer. If Democrats win a combination of give of those elections, they get control of the Senate. One Democrat (Dave Hansen of Green Bay) won his July 12 election outright. At least three Democrats must win Tuesday to shift Senate control. Then the two Democratic incumbents facing recall votes on August 16 must win.