The Rise of Political Recalls in Alaska

Across the state, recall elections are becoming an increasingly popular tactic to respond to politically contentious policies.

In Alaska, recall elections are quickly becoming as common as regularly scheduled local elections themselves. Just this year, voters in Midtown Anchorage voted on two recalls of their Assemblypeople — Felix Rivera in April, and then again for his colleague Meg Zaletel in October. Now, signature-gathering is underway for the effort to recall Eagle River-Chugiak Assemblywoman Jamie Allard. Soon, recall efforts will be underway to recall Mayor Dave Bronson.

On top of the recalls that made it to the ballot in 2021, there are dozens of petitions that were struck down by municipal clerks. They include recalls of Anchorage Assembly members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Kameron Perez-Verdia; four members of the Palmer City Council; Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka; and more. 

Though recalls often appear to surround issues of transparency in government, they are more often than not motivated by political or policy disagreements. Both Midtown recalls became explicit battles over an incumbent’s record as an Assemblyperson, such how CARES Act was spent and the COVID mitigation policies like mask mandates. A piece in the Alaska Landmine by the primary sponsor of the Recall Jamie Allard effort indicts Allard for being a partisan obstructionist on the Assembly. District 14 Republican party officers could be initiating a recall against Rep. Kelly Merrick (R) for joining the Democrat-led House Majority Coalition — a decision that neither breaks the law nor meets any of the legal standards for a recall petition to be approved.

Nevertheless, an increasingly polarized political environment at the local level and a few important recent court decisions mean recall politics is fueling a rise in recall efforts across the state. This begs the question: what are the rules for recalling elected officials, and perhaps more importantly: do recalls work?

What is the law surrounding recalls in Alaska?

State & Municipal Law

Broadly, there are two kinds of legal frameworks under which recalls take place in the U.S: judicial recalls and political recalls. Recalls based on judicial standards require a petition to show a violation of either law or, in some cases, incompetence. In other words, you must demonstrate cause for your petition to be placed in front of voters.

The Alaska State Constitution gives the legislature the power to determine the standards for recalling public figures in Article XI, section 8, which reads: 

 “All elected public officials in the State, except judicial officers, are subject to recall by the voters of the State or political subdivision from which elected. Procedures and grounds for recall shall be prescribed by the legislature.”

The Legislature first codified recalls of state officials into law in 1960 with AS 15.46. It establishes a four-tiered standard for recall, with the most recent definitions of each standard coming from the opinion issues in State of Alaska v Recall Dunleavy (2021). Notably, Meiners v Bering Strait School District (1984) ruled that a recall election should be held even if only one of the allegations in the recall petition holds true.

  1. Lack of fitness: The Alaska State Supreme Court draws from Valley Residents for a Citizen Legislature v. State, Division of Elections 2003 and defines “fitness” as limited to officials’ physical and mental capacity to perform their official duties.
  2. Incompetence: The State allows for recalls due to incompetence under two pretenses: (1) an allegation that an official does not have basic knowledge or qualifications for the duties of the position, or (2) an explanation of why an official cannot perform their prescribed duties. “
  3. Neglect of duties: The State requires either an allegation of the significance of the duty or an allegation that the omission had a tangible consequence to justify subjecting the official to a recall election.
  4. Corruption: More self-explanatory but ill-defined by court precedent.

Local officials like assemblypersons and elected boards and agencies became subject to a slightly different standard by the Legislature in 1972 with AS 29.26. It established three standards for a local recall petition to move forward: (1) misconduct in office, (2) incompetence, or (3) failure to perform prescribed duties. Unlike state-level recalls, local recalls have a “particularity requirement”, meaning petitions need to have “a statement in 200 words or less of the grounds for recall stated with particularity” (AS 29.26.260(a)(3). 

Eight states have judicial recall frameworks, all mandating that some form of government — an agency or the courts — determine that a public official did a bad act that violates a particular law or code. Generally, this means you cannot file a recall petition solely based on political choices an elected official has made.

The other 11 states allow for such political recalls, meaning that public officials can get the boot for just about anything. In these states, voters decide what constitutes as politically irredeemable — even if no law was violated, and even if the petition makes unsubstantiated claims about the target of the recall. 

Alaska’s current recall system enshrines judicial recalls. But recently, a series of court decisions have reversed efforts by governments to dismiss recall petitions on certain legal grounds, weakening the standard set out by the Legislature. This has led to a dramatic ramping up of recall efforts. 

Case Law

Alaska’s courts have handled recalls in several instances, but there are two key decisions that have shaped recall law at the local and state level. The first is Alaska State Supreme Court case Meiners v Bering Strait School District (1984), which reversed a superior court decision that threw out a recall petition against three members of a regional school board. This Supreme Court decision held that recall law at the local level “should be liberally construed so that the people are permitted to vote and express their will”. It emphasized that it is up to voters “to assess the truth or falsity of the allegations in the petition”, granting voters a broad right to recall elected officials with minimal interference from the courts. Much of the case’s reasoning rests on the argument that wrapping local recall law in strict legal requirements makes it difficult to assemble a proper recall petition without the aid of a lawyer, especially for rural Alaskans.

In 2017, a Superior Court judge used this decision to allow a recall to move forward against three Homer City Council members who had been accused of allegedly using their positions as a partisan political platform. Note, this case law addresses the recall of local government officials, not state-level officials.

The second landmark case, State of Alaska v Recall Dunleavy (2021), dramatically shifted our standard of recall at the state level away from judicial and closer to political recalls. On July 15th, 2019, Recall Dunleavy launched their effort to recall Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy. The petition filed by the campaign claimed that Dunleavy (1) failed to appoint a judge by the 45-day limit, (2) conducted a state-sponsored political campaign, (3) violated the separation of powers by issuing a politically motivated veto of the court system funding and (4) a separate mistaken veto. The Alaska Supreme Court upheld all four grounds, arguing that they technically met one or more of the four-tiered standards for state-level recalls. 

This court decision effectively argues that it is not the courts or the Division of Elections place to act as gatekeeper for recalls. Rather, state institutions are there to assess whether the petition meets the legal requirements set out by the legislature. The opinion issued by the court states that “assuming the facts are true, there is no need for additional information to establish a ground for recall.” Whether the law that was broken or the act of misconduct is meaningfully problematic is no longer for the state or courts to decide; voters can decide what is severe enough to send a politician packing. 

“But It is for the voters—not the Division (of Elections) or the courts—to judge the seriousness of an alleged ground. The people asked to sign petitions must decide whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant a recall election; each voter in the voting booth must decide whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant removal from office.”

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As a caveat, there is court precedent that limits the freedom with which claims may be levied in a petition. In von Stauffenberg v. Committee for Honest & Ethical School Board (1995), the State Supreme Court sided with school board members because they didn’t break any laws on the books. The court clearly explains that “elected officials cannot be recalled for legally exercising the discretion granted to them by law.” For a local recall petition to meet the particularity requirement, it must clearly explain why an official broke the law. Even State of Alaska v Recall Dunleavy makes very clear that state recall law does not allow for “no-cause-required recalls”.

However, State of Alaska v Recall Dunleavy still gives greater leeway to recalls than ever before. As a result, recall elections are seeing much more activity across the state — especially at the local level. Below is a synopsis of every recall to be put on a ballot in the State of Alaska since 2011. 

Recall elections 2011-present

To date, there have been 31 recall attempts which received enough signatures to make it to the ballot over the last 10 years. Of those recalls, 18 officials have been ousted — though recalls against the Wrangell Medical Center and the mayor and city council of Dot Lake make up 13 of those. The other five officials who were kicked out were the mayors of Whittier and North Slope Borough, President of the Galena School Board, a Wasilla city council member who was accused of trashing a hotel room, and a Cordova city council member who was accused of misconduct in office.

Alaska recall ballot history 2011-2021

Do recalls work?

Success Rate

Do they succeed in removing members of elected bodies from office? At best, it happens infrequently and circumstantially. As mentioned above, 18/31 officials have been successfully recalled in 10 years. But two recall elections that happened nearly 10 years ago — the Dot Lake Tribal Council and the Wrangell Medical Center Board recalls — account for nearly half of them. 

It’s worth noting that most of Alaska’s recalls have taken place in very small communities with only a few hundred ballots being casted. It is difficult to project the attitudes of communities the size of a small neighborhood in Anchorage onto political trends in more populated regions of Alaska, which is where recall politics are increasingly showing up. 

Accountability

Perhaps if recalls don’t always succeed in removing officials from office, they may put pressure on politicians and incentivize them to modulate their behavior. At the local level, recalls have forced the resignations of a few officials before ballots were ever printed — including the President of the Ketchikan Borough School District Trevor Shaw and Houston Mayor Roger Purcell

But even if nobody resigns, recalls might force leaders to change course. For instance, the Recall Dunleavy effort arguably forced Governor Dunleavy to backtrack on many of his unpopular proposed budget cuts. 

For either resignation or reversal of policy to happen, an elected official needs to believe the recall could harm their chances at re-election or that their agenda could be meaningfully compromised.

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