Should we be able to recall our TDs?

By Michael Gallagher

Recall of elected representatives occasionally surfaces in discussions of political reform, and has been given topicality by the adverse publicity surrounding the Wexford TD Mick Wallace and his tax affairs. It also arose last month (June 2012) in the US state of Wisconsin, where attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, by local Democrats to pull the plug on the term of Republican governor Scott Walker got wide publicity outside the USA in this presidential election year.

The basic idea is that an elected representative is subject to ‘recall’ by his or her voters. Typically, a certain number of signatures on a petition are required, and if this number is reached a referendum on the incumbent’s continuation in office takes place. According to a reliable source (Wikipedia – there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on the subject) this is pretty much confined to two countries, the USA and Switzerland (cantonal level only). The number of signatures required varies – in Switzerland it averages around 10 per cent of the electorate. There is also variation in the grounds for recall. In some cases it is necessary for those promoting the recall to cite specific grounds, in the broadest sense ‘misconduct’. In others, as in Wisconsin, the basis can be purely partisan – the petitioners are straightforwardly attempting to terminate the tenure of an office-holder whose policies they oppose, without having to claim malfeasance, incompetence, neglect of duty or impropriety. Given the nebulous nature of many of those concepts the difference may be academic.

The argument in favour is that it keeps elected representatives on their toes. They cannot, once elected, behave as they wish for the next five years, which could, in theory anyway, be quite a temptation for those who expect to retire, or feel certain of defeat, at the next election. Representatives are made permanently and continuously accountable to the people, preventing, as far as possible, the emergence of a ‘political class’ that can disregard the people except when election season comes around. If a representative engages in behaviour that attracts censure – in the past serving TDs have spent time in jail, and in the current Dáil a motion has been passed calling on one of its members to resign after the findings of the Moriarty report – some feel there should be some mechanism to prise them out of their Dáil seat.

For critics, of course, the opposite is true. Far from enhancing the quality of democracy, the recall provision is an archetypal populist measure that diminishes it, by turning a current tendency to short-term thinking into pathological short-termism on the part of elected officials. Recall brings ever closer the nightmare scenario where politicians have to change tack in response to the latest focus group or text vote, trying to keep everyone permanently happy and in the process satisfying no-one. It would become impossible for a government to develop and implement a five-year programme that entailed tough measures early in the term if it had in some sense to go before the electorate repeatedly throughout its term.

Whatever the general arguments – and the fact that recall is employed in so few countries is surely suggestive – there would be obvious difficulties in applying it in a country where MPs are elected from multi-member constituencies, as is the case in most of Europe, including Ireland. (In Swiss cantons, cantonal executives can be recalled, but not individual MPs.) Indeed, the same objections would arise in single-member constituency systems where, unlike the USA, there is not a pure 2-party system and many MPs are elected with fewer than 50 per cent of the votes.

The main problem is that no individual TD wins a majority of the votes in the first place, so each would be vulnerable to being ‘recalled’ even if their popularity had not diminished since the general election. The highest proportion of the vote won by any candidate in the 2011 election was the 33.3 per cent of the votes won by the FG candidate in Kildare South. Mick Wallace topped the poll in Wexford, but he won only 17.6 per cent of the votes, so it is perfectly plausible that he could lose a recall referendum even if his support has remained steady or increased in the interim.

TDs from minority parties would be very vulnerable. In Dun Laoghaire, for example, where Richard Boyd Barrett won only 11 per cent of the votes in 2011, it might not be difficult to find sufficient supporters of FG, Labour and FF to support a proposal that he be recalled and a fresh election held to fill the seat, in which he would have little chance of winning. But the tables might also be turned: opposition supporters could launch attempts to recall government TDs, especially those accused of having broken promises they made before the last election, and according to the opinion polls Labour TDs in particular might have difficulty in surviving recall attempts.

Given that the average TD won 8,338 first preferences in 2011 while the average number of valid votes per constituency was nearly 52,000, it is obvious that few TDs could be confident about surviving a referendum on their individual performance. The idea of holding such a referendum, in fact, seems in complete contradiction of the principles underlying any system of proportional representation, in particular the principle that minorities are entitled to representation whether the majority likes their choice or not.

That being so, surely the idea of introducing a recall provision in Ireland is a non-starter, and this is not something that should get onto the agenda of the constitutional convention?


9 thoughts on “Should we be able to recall our TDs?

  1. A bit simplistic, to be fair – it could quite easily be specified that the recallee receive a particular proportion of the votes cast, not half of them. For example, in his five seater constituency, Wallace would have to get over one sixth of the votes cast to hold on to his seat. It’s simply a matter of adjusting the bar relative to the context.

    • @Ciarán Mc Mahon
      Clever idea! Though one could set the bar lower (for recall) at requiring the recallee to get 1/(constituency magnitude) of votes rather than 1/(magnitude+1) to keep his seat (approximately a quota of votes is discarded and not represented in PR-STV, there’s no real reason this has to hold here). So in a five-seater, a vote of over 80% to recall the candidate would succeed. But the problem is how likely are we to get any vote of 80%+? Even those who didn’t originally vote for the candidate may not like his recall (and there may be a rump of voters who just don’t like recall and will always vote against). The bar to recall in large constituencies would be so high that I’d wonder if people would bother.

      Recalling an entire constituency and all its TDs at once is an option. A majority vote to do this does make sense would be fair. But that’s quite a blunt all-or-nothing tool.

    • I don’t think this would overcome the difficulty that it would be TDs representing minority parties or views who would be the most vulnerable to this procedure. If a major party, or government, TD were challenged we’d expect the party / government as a whole to rally behind the targeted TD, so the likelihood of such a TD failing to achieve a quota of support (ie 20% in a 4-seater, etc) would be negligible. But a TD of a small party with no allies, or an independent, might find this a challenge.

      Is anyone advocating that the idea of introducing recall of individual TDs be seriously considered?

      • Hmm, I see your (MG’s) point. If one party has 37% support in a district and 2 TDs out of 5, it can block the recall of either of those TDs (assuming it didn’t have to somehow “defend” both seats at once – ie, that there are separate recall referenda on each seat). Whereas a party with 17% support and one TD out of 5 is more vulnerable to losing one of those seats.

        Two alternatives might get around this problem:

        (a) that recall means a new PR vote for all the seats. In which case it should need more than the usual 10-20% petition to trigger. Something around 60% might be more appropriate. There might also be some way to count abstentions to favour sitting Members, ie those who get in at the general election. Perhaps the quota could be based on the higher of (i) valid votes cast in the recall poll, or (ii) 60% of all enrolled voters, and if “challenger” candidates don’t reach a full quota, the last-eliminated incumbents stay seated by default.


        (b) that one seat in a district is filled by majority vote (AV) and subject to recall, while the others (an even number, and preferably four or more) are filled by PR and get a fixed term.

  2. Thanks for that description of the pros and cons of a recall facility in this Republic.
    Given that Richard Boyd Barrett raised the possibility of a recall election when discussing the Mick Wallace situation, I am amused with your opining on what might happen to Richard Boyd Barrett should such a facility be available here in the Republic.

    Whatever about the merits or otherwise of recall elections here, what we really need to debate is the extent to which we, citizens (who own the power of the state which we delegate in elections) have any checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful, be they elected or appointed, local or national, public or private.
    After national elections, the Government has virtually total power of initiative including the timing of the next general election (within the 5 year term specified by law). Even by-elections can be held up , as was clear in the Donegal SW constituency when SF’s Pearse Doherty was successful in a court challenge in 2010.

    This is not something that our political scientists have got around to yet. As an example I searched, in vain, in the index for the terms “power”, “checks and balances” in looking at Irish Governance in Crisis edited by Niamh Hardiman which Minister Brendan Howlin launched last week. That said, the book has much to commend it!

    Given that the largely self-induced crisis which we are now living through has meant
    1) the largest falls in output in any Western country in peacetime;
    2) one of the worst bank failures in history, relative to the size of the economy;
    3) the governing classes do-minimum on political and institutional reform over decades;

    we, in Ireland, need to start become aware of other forms of direct democracy (of which recall is one), investigating such forms at both national (eg Switzerland) and sub-national levels (eg. Swiss cantons, German Lander, US states) with a view to designing, developing, discussing and implementing such measures here to give ourselves a better way of governing ourselves,

    In discussing recall, it is worth noting that the recent Wisconsin election was only the third recall of a Governor in US history – the other two being
    1) 1987/88 Arizona’s Governor Mecham (Republican). In the event the State Senate impeached him on other grounds and removed from office before the scheduled date of the recall election, which was then struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court;
    2) In 2003, California’s Governor Gray Davis (Democrat) was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger following the first successful recall election on the Governor in California.

  3. Ciaran Mc Mahon is correct. In a multi-seat PR arrangement a sitting deputy should only be required to achieve a quota for the constituency concerned in a recall election. That is the simple solution. The main defect in the democratic process is the ability of elected representatives to make any promise that takes their fancy in an election and to support policies in government which are substantially the opposite for as much as five years while drawing substantial salaries and allowances. This is particularly pointed in the case of ministers who have no career or economic need to contest the following election. Such a situation exists in the present government as it did in the previous government. Why are political science departments in our third level institutions failing to prioritise the removal of this anti-democratic arrangement? I believe that these departments are suffused with a middle-class prejudice which identifies the main defect in the Irish democratic system as local clientielism. There is overwhelming evidence that the main defect is, in fact, undue influence by the rich and the very rich on governments in power. Let us recall the blanket bank guarantee and the widening gap between rich and poor since 2008. This undue influence is facilitated by the unaccountability of governments and TDs between elections. So the recall of TDs is not a non starter, Michael, but the required point of departure for real political reform.

    • “…identifies the main defect in the Irish democratic system as local clientielism. There is overwhelming evidence that the main defect is, in fact, undue influence by the rich and the very rich on governments in power. ”

      Is there any difference, in practice, between “clientalism” and “undue influence”?

  4. To expand on what Ciarán McMahon said: if an STV jurisdiction combined a simultaneous, but contingent, by-election with a recall election (as in California), the rules could provide that every ballot-paper showing a “NO” vote on the “Shall Official XYZ be recalled?” section be weighted as [number of seats for that constituency] votes for both the recall referendum and – if needed – the by-election. Conversely, every ballot showing a “YES” to recall is counted as 1.000 vote. So, in a five-seater district, the voters favouring recall would need to outnumber the incumbent’s supporters by a margin greater than five to one (IOW, to hold them below a quota of 16.667% of votes) either to remove a sitting official or to elect her successor.

    Applied to a single office such as the presidency or an elective mayor, this would still translate to 50.001% of votes both to remove and to replace, as in US States (if they used STV!).

    On top of requiring a super-majority of votes cast (in multi-seat districts), there is also a case for requiring the YES to removal votes to exceed a certain proportion of all eligible voters on the electoral roll: the Irish Constitution’s 33.333% sounds reasonable for this purpose.

    Otherwise, as Colby Cosh observed from Canada two years ago

    “… The Lib Dem position on election reform almost seems to tack on a 3b) here, since the party is also in favour of voter recall of MPs. How can, say, multi-member constituencies be reconciled with such a thing? By design, STV in ridings with x members would produce some members with support from only about 1/x of the riding’s voters. Giving minority and fringe candidates the benefit of proportionality implies that you’re ultimately letting some of them in, _somehow_. But as soon as Udolpho Hilter of the Kill-the-Immigrants Party is sworn in with one-sixth or one-eighth of a regional vote, wouldn’t he be vulnerable to recall by the overwhelming majority of the region that doesn’t want him? And don’t you then need to have a by-election for the vacated single seat, inevitably re-introducing national-scale disproportionality to your precious perfect wedding cake of democracy?”

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