California may have had the lead role in the recent comedy “How to Lose a State in 10 Days,” but recalls affect local governments far more than state governments. While Gray was coiffing his 'do and Arnold was practicing his lines, county election officials had crucial supporting roles, scrambling to find the manpower and money to squeeze a special election into the schedule of countywide local elections in November, and a primary election and general election next year.

State election recalls are unusual; only one governor has ever been recalled. Recalls at the local level, however, are not rare. Thousands of local officials have faced recall elections.

In a 2001 survey, the Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association found that 60.9 percent of cities have recall provisions. Between 1996 and 2001, recall initiatives were filed against mayors in 4.1 percent of cities and recall elections of council members occurred in 5.3 percent of cities. In those cases, the mayor was recalled in 17.6 percent of the elections and 29.2 percent of the council members were removed.

One source estimates that since the early part of the last century, as many as 5,000 local recall elections have been held and that about half of those resulted in the removal of some elected officials (noting that more than one official is targeted in about a third of recall campaigns). Los Angeles alone has hosted more than 45 recall elections.

Although it doesn't appear that recalls are rampant or are being abused, they are a reality at the local level. And considering that some might be encouraged by California's recall efforts, now would be a good time to review statutory provisions governing local recalls, especially if you are a city or county official in one of the 36 states that allow voters to remove you before the next election.

California's recall was comparatively easy to accomplish because of how its provisions were defined. Several factors can be included in those provisions:

  • The offices subject to recall,

  • The procedures for circulating and certifying a petition,

  • The length of time the petition can be circulated,

  • Whether a referendum or an immediate election is required and when the election must take place,

  • The period of time during the term when the recall is not allowed, and

  • Specific reasons for the recall.

  • Most important, however, is whether the percentage of voters required to sign a recall petition is based on the number of registered voters or on those who voted in the previous election.

    Forewarned is forearmed. If Arnold Schwarzenegger can turn an entire state into a set for the sequel to Total Recall, it might be time to get your act together.