Most voters on the North Coast made the right choice by not signing #TimberUnity’s recall petition against state Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell.
The recall drive was based on the Astoria Democrat’s vote last session for House Bill 2020, a cap-and-trade proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We opposed the bill because the higher fuel costs baked into the idea would have had a disproportionate impact on rural Oregon.
But climate change was a theme of Mitchell’s 2018 campaign, so her support for the bill was consistent with the policy priorities she outlined for voters before she was elected. She was one of 36 House Democrats to vote for HB 2020, yet was the only one to face a recall petition.
We suspect #TimberUnity saw Mitchell — a freshman who also angered her union allies by voting for pension reform — as an easy target. It was a miscalculation that backfired on a grassroots movement with the potential to be an important voice on rural issues.
Over the past few months, the recall petition was the topic of dozens of letters to the editor in The Astorian, as readers argued whether there were sufficient grounds to recall Mitchell.
The debate was a good reminder that there are no specific grounds for recall in Oregon.
The Oregon Constitution spells out the process but provides no criteria for the kind of behavior that warrants removal from office. Organizers must gather signatures from 15% of the vote for governor in the last election — they needed 4,883 in Mitchell’s House District 32 — to file a petition with the reasons for their demand. The elected official can either resign or face a recall election within 35 days.
Oregon was a pioneer. Voters added recall to the constitution in 1908 during a decade where people also won the power of initiative and referendum. The progressive reforms — led by William S. U’Ren’s Direct Legislation League — can be critical counterweights to corruption, entrenched power and wealthy interests that corrode government.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now allow recall, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A majority, like Oregon, allow recall petitions for any reason. But eight states have specific grounds.
In Alaska, for example, the criteria is lack of fitness, incompetence, neglect of duties, or corruption. In Rhode Island, it is indictment for a felony, conviction of a misdemeanor, or a probable cause finding for an ethics violation. In Washington state, it is malfeasance, misfeasance, or violations of the oath of office.
We think Oregon would be better off if voters added specific grounds. While recalls are relatively rare, there should be a higher standard for undoing elections.
In our hyperpartisan climate, politically-motivated recall petitions have the potential to undermine public faith in the democratic process. At the local level in Clatsop County, several recall campaigns have been driven by policy differences or personality clashes.
Political and policy disagreements can be settled at the ballot box in election years. Recall should be reserved for clear, unambiguous violations of the public trust.
The criteria in Alaska and Washington state are reasonable models. We should draft our own and amend the Oregon Constitution.