By Patsy Brumfield
Mississippi has a recall law, but its scope and usefulness is questionable.
Tuesday, Wisconsin voters went to the polls to decide the fate of controversial Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who dared to challenge public labor organizations soon after he came to office.
With more than 80 percent of the vote counted, Walker was declared winner of the election with 55 percent to Barrett’s 44 percent.
That recall election has held national news headlines since Walker’s opponents achieved their state’s petition requirements: valid signatures by 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the latest preceding election for governor.
In Mississippi, statewide elected officials can be removed from office only if they are convicted of a felony – with some few exceptions. County officials, on the other hand, can be removed by the voters under a law the Legislature passed in 1956.
“I’ve never heard of it being used,” said Bubba Neely, a longtime Mississippi Senate attorney. “It’s so convoluted, I don’t know how it could be used.”
Under the provision, laid out across three dozen code subsections, the governor may remove a county official after a multi-phase process, which begins with the reasons for that person’s removal:
“Knowingly or willfully failing, neglecting or refusing to perform any of the duties required of such officer by law.” (Miss. Code ’72, Sect. 25-5-5.)
Unlike Wisconsin, at least 30 percent of the qualified electors in the Mississippi official’s county must sign a petition demanding his or her removal.
But if the official is a supervisor, a justice court judge or a constable, at least 51 percent of the county’s qualified electors must sign the petitions.
“That’s an incredibly high threshold,” Neely noted.
Ultimately, a “removal council” of three governor-selected chancery judges would hold a hearing for public comments on the recall effort, then an election would determine if the person stayed in office.
Thirty-eight states have provisions to recall elected officials. In 18 states, voters can recall statewide and local elected officials. Eleven of these states have provisions that say the right of recall extends to members of their congressional delegation, but it hasn’t been clear whether federal courts will allow states to recall their federal politicians.
In 20 states, voters can’t recall statewide elected officials or state legislators, but can recall some local officials.
Mississippi neighbors Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee have some form of recall.
How Mississippi’s law came to be isn’t entirely clear with the passage of 56 years.
Veteran Mississippi journalist Wilson F. “Bill” Minor reported in 1977 that the 1956 recall law was an important focus for then-Gov. J.P. Coleman, who insisted homefolks should have a way to rid themselves of corrupt local officials.
To that date, it had never been used successfully to rid a county of any officials perceived to have gone bad after they were elected.
The 1956 action, historically, came at a time across the South where white public officials established a web of initiatives to curb influence by black citizens.
An Internet search reveals that Mississippi’s recall law was used at least once – in the 1980s to recall three black members of the Claiborne County School Board.
A federal appeals court rejected their contentions the recall violated their civil rights and sent the case back to the local removal council.
Looking at the past 15 years, numerous attempts have been made to amend the 1956 law or establish a new recall system. None has passed.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, once a member of the Mississippi House and Senate, said he’d tried several times to get passed provisions to make it easier to recall corrupt supervisors and justice court judges.
“We failed because it was perceived by minorities as a bad thing and it also worried officials that it would be used to recall them,” he said Tuesday.
Longtime political observer Dr. Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said he’s not surprised the old law remains.
“You know, with fundamental things like that, we’re very slow to change,” Wiseman said about Mississippi.
But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who’s been in the Legislature since 1984, said voters already have a “recall” law when they vote every four years.
Otherwise, he said a recall law is a bad thing and unnecessarily boils the already simmering political pot.
“Recall is a terrible idea,” said Bryan, who’s chaired Constitution and Elections committees in that chamber.
“The problem is that it fosters constant politicking – not governing – and it keeps us consumed by elections.”
Bryan also said he sees recalls like the one in Wisconsin over a single issue made by an elected official who hasn’t had enough time in office for voters to see the bigger picture of his performance.
“If they want change, then it’s up to them to do it every four years,” he said.