My first, and only, recall experience happened after the small town of Hughson was riddled by scandal, insider dealing, and the appearance of corruption. Friends of mine were moved to act as a result of an unfair, power-hungry majority on the city council. As a lifelong neighbor of the community, I was recruited to help correct their wrongs and lead a recall effort.
Recall elections are a process that places the full burden of progression all on the proponents of a recall election. Like a trial by jury, the burden of proof is on those seeking to change the status quo. It means it takes real work and concerted effort to successfully recall an official.
But the hardest part of a recall election is not the election at all; it is qualifying the election. The multi-step process is full of pitfalls and requires diligent planning and even more careful execution.
First, we drafted a letter of intent that included a petition for registered voters to sign.
The letter had to be perfect. If not, we would have had to start the process all over again. Once an elections official approved our letter of intent, we had to serve the letter to the individual who would be subjected to recall. For us in Hughson, this meant we had to serve letters to all three individuals.
In fact, under the law, we were actually starting three separate recall elections.
Serving the notices can be tricky. If an official is facing recall, it is amazing how scarce they can make themselves. Citizens for Better City Government served one member at their front door, another by certified mail, and a third during a city council meeting.
After we served the individuals, we had to file affidavits to the election official proving we served the individual. We then had to publish our letter of intent in a newspaper. After that process was completed and approved by elections officials, we had to draft our recall petition.
This was the most stressful and difficult part. Unless you could afford a paralegal or a lawyer to draft your petition (which we could not) you have to draft it yourself. So we started writing.
These petitions had numerous requirements and exacting standards that had to be maintained. It was very easy to make mistakes and have a draft rejected. We would write a draft, submit it, and wait for the elections officials to reject it. We’d submit another, and we’d receive another rejection. Through the whole process, elections officials offered only vague reasons for their rejections. It wasn’t that they were being unhelpful or trying to hinder our efforts, but by law they had to remain neutral.
After weeks of attempts, we finally figured out how to do it just right. Our petitions were approved and suddenly we found ourselves on a deadline to acquire the required amount of signatures we needed.
If a recall fails, it commonly fails during the petition phase. Only registered voters in the affected precincts can circulate the petitions. They must obtain the required number of signatures in a certain amount of time. To further complicate matters, our opponents circulated a counter petition that allowed people to remove their names from the recall petition, even if they had already signed it. All three councilmen used this tactic.
They went door-to-door with their petitions and told people that by signing their petition, it would help protect current water rates. This claim was technically true because the office holders had consistently voted not to raise rates.
Citizens for Better City Government needed a counter strategy.
I had two things working in my favor. First, Hughson is a small city. Second, in terms of organizing a ground-game, Hughson is a very workable city. But I also had three things working against me: I had a more mature group of people, with many of the citizens over forty years of age and many of our younger supporters lived outside of the city limits and could not handle the petitions.
The final hardship our team faced was the fact many citizens in Hughson were just plain afraid of the majority on the council and did not want to publicly support our group for fear of retaliation.
With some of the problems outside of my control, I took a day to think. Then, I came up with a plan.
I called the plan blitzkrieg. I assembled the team’s leaders and told them we had to just 72-hours to qualify the recall. If we didn’t, we were done. We had to beat our opponents at their own door-to-door game and catch them off guard. I told them the following weekend would determine victory, and that if they truly wanted to take the city back, we had to give up a weekend, sweat it out and make some sacrifices.
To be honest I was hoping to get 8-10 dedicated volunteers to go out and walk the streets. Instead we had about 22 walkers and another 20 people in support, providing drinks, food, music, morale support and cars. Operating out of a garage at the house of a team leader, it took us less then 60 hours to obtain the signatures of one-third of the voting population of Hughson.
We qualified the election. Now it was time to hold the actual election.