past Election Day provided the setting for an unusual
campaign. Citizens stationed outside precincts in a
Providence neighborhood engaged voters in a discussion about
their incumbent City Councilman, when neither his name nor
the office he held was on the ballot. In the weeks leading up
to Election Day, the councilman sued his constituents in
Superior Court (and appealed to the Supreme Court) to enjoin
their Election Day activities.
Election Day campaign yielded more than 1,800
While the political consequences (if any) will be local, the Constitutional and policy issues this campaign raises may help answer several questions about the form of representative democracy that prevails in the State of Rhode Island. When voters elect someone to a fixed term of office, by what measures (if any) should the official be held accountable prior to the next election? If voters are granted the authority to retract their approval mid-term, should this power be plenary, or should it be limited to specific types of official misconduct? When voters exercise this power, what boundaries (in terms of timing or thresholds of petition signatures) should be imposed? If the current Providence recall campaign succeeds, will it be a victory for the voters, or the opening of a Pandora's box of a "permanent campaign" that makes it impossible for elected officials to govern in a community's long-term interest?
To help understand these issues, this article first will review the recall election process in Rhode Island, describing notable prior (failed) efforts and governing municipal and State law. It will then offer a brief overview of experience and laws in other states. Finally, it will discuss how the different forms of recall law advance public policy goals, suggesting ways to improve our current structure.
I. Recalls in Rhode Island
A. Attempted Recalls
closest any Rhode Island community came to recalling an
elected official probably happened in Exeter in December,
2013. At that time, the Rhode Island Firearms League aimed
their sights at four Exeter Town Council members who had
passed an ordinance regulating the issuance of concealed
weapons permits by the Town Clerk.
recall efforts in Rhode Island did not even reach the ballot.
In 2014, a group of Woonsocket voters filed an initial
affidavit seeking the recall of two City Council members
because of their vote in favor of all-day kindergarten, but
the proponents failed to collect sufficient signatures to
require a recall vote.
Rhode Island voters amended Article IV, Section 1 of its Constitution to permit recall elections of the State’s general officers with the introduction of four-year terms in the 1994 election. The Constitution does not provide for the recall of members of the General Assembly. There is no reported instance of a recall petition of a Rhode Island general officer reaching a significant stage of progress.
B. Rhode Island laws governing recall elections
displayed in a chart at the end of this article, the charters
of nineteen Rhode Island cities and towns permit recall of
certain local legislators, administrators and other elected
officials under widely varying procedures and
time window for recalling a Providence Mayor or City Council
member opens after the official has been in office for at
least six months, and closes a year before the conclusion of
their four-year terms.
Following the pattern of other Rhode Island municipalities, the Providence recall process does not limit the reasons voters may choose to recall their elected officials; instead, elected officials are effectively “employees at will”...