It's really not supposed to be like this. Historically, state senators in Wisconsin have been more likely to leave the Legislature's higher chamber because of death, felony convictions or election to higher office than through recall elections.
It's different this summer because of the anger Gov. Scott Walker ignited by introducing legislation to restrict the collective bargaining rights of public workers. Democrats, unions and other liberal groups have gathered enough signatures to force six Republican senators into recall elections. The GOP, which currently has a three-vote advantage in the Senate, has responded in-kind: Three Democrats face recalls as well.
This onslaught of democracy is so unprecedented that the agency charged with setting up the recall elections has been overwhelmed. And, very likely, so are you, the voter. Here is a guide to help you grasp the recall madness.
How is a state senator recalled?
It starts with a recall committee, which must register with the Government Accountability Board. After doing that, the committee has 60 days to get a number of signatures equal to one quarter of the total number of people in the district who voted in the last election for governor.
In other words, if 80,000 district residents voted in the last governor's election, 20,000 signatures are required for the recall petition. (See chart for the number of signatures required in each district and the number purportedly turned in to the GAB.)
How does the GAB make sure those signatures are from actual people who live in the district?
It doesn't. According to GAB spokesman Reid Magney, all the panel does is conduct a "facial examination" of the signatures. That means it makes sure each signature is accompanied by a date that falls within the required timeline, as well as an address that could be in the district.
For instance, when it examines the recall petition for Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay), the GAB is not going to make sure that a signatory with a Green Bay address actually lives in the part of that city that Hansen represents. However, if staff spot any addresses from cities that are entirely outside of the district (Madison, for instance), they will disqualify those signatures.
So there's no safeguard against rampant forgery and fraud?
Of course there is! Both parties have people working day and night reviewing signatures. If they or anybody else challenges one or more signatures, the GAB will investigate further.
In fact, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has already brought challenges to thousands of signatures on the petition to recall Sen. Robert Wirch. Most notably it has challenged a signature that bears the name of Bill Pocan, the deceased father of state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison).
Do all states have recall elections?
No. In fact, only 19 states give the people the power to recall elected officials. In Wisconsin, the recall was established in 1926, with the backing of Progressives such as Fightin' Bob La Follette, who saw it as a means of holding public officials accountable.
Have recalls been widely used in Wisconsin?
Hardly. In 84 years, only two lawmakers have been successfully recalled: Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee) in 2003 and Sen. George Petak (R-Racine) in 1996. However, the successful recall of seven Milwaukee County Board supervisors in 2002 (over a pension controversy) provides perhaps the closest parallel to the current campaigns against state senators.
What do challengers need to do to get on the ballot?
From the day the recall petition is certified, challengers have two weeks to gather 400 signatures from voters in the district.
When will the recall elections be held?
According to the law, once a recall petition is certified, an election is set six weeks (six Tuesdays) from that date. Because of the unprecedented number of recall campaigns, a judge granted the GAB an extension in reviewing the nine petitions.
To avoid confusing voters, the panel hopes to approve or reject all the petitions on the same day, May 31, so that all the elections can be held on the same day, July 12.
"You've got multiple Senate districts in a media market, and obviously there's going to be a lot of attention on these elections, and we don't want to confuse the public," says Magney.
So far the GAB has certified the recall petitions for three Republicans: Sens. Dan Kapanke (La Crosse), Randy Hopper (Fond du Lac) and Luther Olsen (Ripon).
Will there be a primary?
If there is more than one candidate from either party, the first election (presumably July 12) becomes a primary election, and the general election would be held four weeks later, on Aug. 9.
What's to stop a senator's defenders from running a weak primary challenger to delay the date of the general election?
Nothing. But it's anybody's guess who that would benefit. The Republicans may want to delay the recalls for as long as possible, but fielding a phony candidate to run in a meaningless primary may just serve to confuse or anger the electorate. So far there is no indication that incumbents of either party will be facing primary challenges.
Will the recall elections be subject to the Voter ID requirements just signed into law?
Yes and no. According to Magney, voters in this summer's elections will be asked for identification. However, voters without ID will be allowed to vote and provided with information on how to get valid ID in time for the 2012 primary, when photo ID will be mandatory.
Is it true that recall elections are not subject to normal campaign finance regulations?
Sort of. Individuals can donate unlimited sums of money to fund the legal expenses associated with filing a recall petition or contesting a petition. But once the GAB certifies the petition and orders the election, the normal rules apply, meaning individuals can donate no more than $1,000 per candidate or an aggregate of $10,000 to all state candidates.
In the crosshairs
First elected: 2004
Signatures needed (collected): 15,588 (30,000)
Challenger: Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse)
Kapanke was reelected with only 51.4% of the vote in 2008 in a district that leans Democratic, making him one of the most vulnerable recall targets.
(R-Fond du Lac)
First elected: 2008
Signatures needed (collected): 15,269 (22,500)
Challenger: Oshkosh Deputy Mayor Jessica King
Hopper has two glaring vulnerabilities. First, he is a freshman senator who won his first election by only 163 votes against his current challenger, Jessica King. Second, his estranged wife alleges that he doesn't even live in his district, instead bunking up in Madison with a young lobbyist mistress.
First elected: 2000
Signatures needed (collected): 13,852 (18,872)
First elected: 1987
Signatures needed (collected): 15,960 (26,000)
Challenger: Nancy Nusbaum, former Brown County executive
Served in Assembly 1982-1992, elected to Senate in 2008
Signatures needed (collected): 15,960 (23,300)
Challengers: Kim Simac, tea party group leader; Lincoln County Board Chair Robert Lussow
Holperin actually faced a recall election in 1990, over a controversial vote he took on Indian fishing rights. He beat the challenger handily, 60%-39%.
Elected to Senate in 2004, served in Assembly from 1994 to 2005
Signatures needed (collected): 14,733 (24,000)
Challenger: Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo)
First elected: 1990
Signatures needed (collected): 20,343 (30,000)
Challenger: Rep. Sandy Pasch
First elected: 2000
Signatures needed (collected): 15,744 (23,000)
Challenger: Shelly Moore, a teacher and an official in the teachers' union.
First elected: 1996
Signatures needed (collected): 13,537 (18,300)
Challenger: Fred Ekornaas, Kenosha County supervisor