When Arnold Schwarzenegger made the 1990 sci-fi film Total Recall, little did he know that 13 years later he would be part of a real-life recall that would see him become governor of California.
In 2003, California voters removed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and put the Republican bodybuilder and actor in his place. It was the second time a US governor had been removed. The first was in 1921 when Republican Governor Lynn Joseph Frazier was deposed in North Dakota.
The current California governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, faced a recall last year, which he easily defeated.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s memory is now an issue in New Orleans. A committee has been formed and petitions are being signed. The mayor’s popularity, once high, has plummeted. Voters – including some who once supported her – are growing increasingly angry.
Cantrell won re-election last November at a time when many voters were unaware an election was taking place. There were few ads or mailers. Worse still, there was a lack of debates, themed forums and harsh media scrutiny.
The mayor was fortunate that the perception of the deteriorating conditions in the city – from rising violent crime to the collapse of the garbage collection system to delays in road repairs – only became sharper after the application deadline for mayor. Cantrell’s opponents were largely unknown and lacked the money or organization to compete seriously.
As a result, many voters felt deprived of an opportunity to speak out at the ballot box.
The mayor easily won a second term, but only 75,000 registered voters turned out to vote; 192,000 stayed at home. Cantrell received fewer votes (less than 49,000) than any mayor since T. Semmes Walmsley, and that was 88 years ago.
Community recalls are nothing new. Mayors from Miami and Los Angeles to Port Allen were recalled. In 1978, Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich walked out of office with 236 votes out of 120,000.
In Louisiana, any “state, district, township, county, or township officer” may be recalled. Judges are excluded.
Once the recall committee begins collecting signatures on a formal petition — the required first step for a recall election — it has 180 days to register 20% of the city’s registered voters. That’s about 53,000 names, and each one must be handwritten, including the voter’s address and the date of signature.
The Cantrell recall petition clock is ticking.
Getting enough signatures to put the recall question on the ballot is possible, but logistically difficult, just as the second step—winning the recall election—would be possible but politically difficult.
Recall campaigns require grassroots organization, specialized expertise, and an efficient signature collection process that can pre-validate petitions to ensure accurate counting. Much of this expertise resides on the West Coast, where citizen-sponsored initiatives are more common.
Once the recall committee receives sufficient valid signatures, the petitions are submitted to the electoral roll for review and authentication. Then the governor sets the date for an election to decide whether the mayor stays or goes.
If the mayor resigns before the referendum, the matter would be settled. But if the mayor stays in office, the recall election would take place on the next scheduled election date after the petitions are confirmed.
Once that happened, the entire city electorate would vote “for” or “against” to commemorate Cantrell. If the majority votes in favour, the mayor is immediately removed from office.
Since the post of mayor would be vacant for more than a year in the current situation, it would be temporarily filled by one of the two city council members (Helena Moreno or JP Morrell) who would be chosen as acting mayor by the five county council members.
The council would then call a special election to choose a new mayor for the term. By law, Cantrell could not run in that election.
Recall is a process that takes time and effort. But if enough voters want change badly enough, that’s the only way to terminate a civil servant’s contract. Just ask Arnold the Terminator.
Ron Faucheux is a non-partisan political analyst based in New Orleans. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a free national newsletter on public opinion.