by Lowman S. Henry | September 09, 2003

PA voters should demand the rights of recall, initiative and referendum

Those wacky Californians have all the fun. First they get the sun and surf, now they get recalls. It’s no wonder Pennsylvania has been losing population to the Golden state for the past generation.

Although the election to re-call Governor Gray Davis, and the concurrent race to pick his possible successor has become a uniquely California-style circus, the right to recall is a freedom California taxpayers have that we here in Pennsylvania do not.

Many, in fact most states have some sort of recall provision for governors and other elected officials. The media hasn’t paid much attention yet, but taxpayers in Nevada are pushing a recall petition in an effort to oust Governor Kenny Guinn. The Republican governor is pushing for $1 billion in tax increases and taxpayers are up in arms.

In Pennsylvania, there are few arms for taxpayers to rise. Under provisions of our state’s constitution we have no right to recall, or the companion rights of initiative and referendum. We are totally at the mercy of a governor and general assembly with no ability to impact our government except through those elected officials.

The past few months of legislative activity – or lack thereof –provides a case in point why taxpayers in the Keystone state need to begin fighting for the rights of recall, initiative and referendum. Governor Ed Rendell came into office full of new ideas – some innovative, some hair-brained. After months of political infighting what has happened? Nothing. Absolutely, nothing.

As the state’s school districts deal with the first missed state education subsidy payment in the commonwealth’s history, all voters can do is watch from the sidelines as such mammoth issues as a structural budget deficit, tax reform, education funding, expanded gambling, and other issues remain mired in gridlock worse than rush hour traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway or the Parkway West.

The gridlock will continue for as long as our elected officials want because there is nothing voters can do about it until November of next year, which is the next time legislators come up for re-election. If there are issues we want addressed, we cannot petition to have them considered by the legislature because we have no process of voter initiative. If we want to make the decisions ourselves, we can’t because we have no ability to place referendum questions on the ballot except by legislative action. If we find Governor Ed Rendell to be as effective as a Rocky opponent, we have no ability to recall him and send him back to the showers in Philadelphia.

The ability of citizens to have direct control over government actions is older than the republic itself. In the 1600s, citizens of New England placed issues on the agenda for discussion then voted in town meetings. Thomas Jefferson argued for the placing of referendum powers in the Virginia state constitution in 1775. As Jefferson so correctly observed: “The natural order of things is for government to gain ground and liberty to lose it.” M. Dane Walters, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute ( argues that historically support for initiative and referendum has been “based on a theory of trusting the individual and not as a method for destroying representative government – but to enhance it.”

States where voters have the strongest recall, initiative and referendum rights tend to be in the west. According to Walters: “the expansion of initiative and popular referendum in the West fit more with the Westerners belief of populism – that the people should rule and not allow the elected to rule the people. Unfortunately in the East and South this was not the case.”

California’s recall race may seem like a Hollywood production to most Pennsylvanians, but this may be one of those times when a trend from the West coast should make its way East – like the tax limiting Proposition 13 revolt did 25 years ago. In the end, Californians are going to get better government as a result of the recall election. Either Governor Davis will survive, chastened and more attuned to the public’s wishes, or a new governor will be elected mindful that he or she could meet the same fate as Davis if progress is not made.

Meanwhile, our own show on the Susquehanna isn’t going to win any Oscars. It has a great plot, but little action. We would all be better off if voters had more of a say in writing the script.