For the first time in seven years, a New Jersey official will be forced to face the voters early due to a recall election. Thanks to petitioners handing in at least 4,150 valid signatures calling for a revote on the position, Mahwah Mayor William Laforet will be on the ballot in November. The recall appears to be focused on Laforet’s criticism of the Town Council for its attempt to stop the construction of an eruv, a wire boundary that allows Jews to carry on Shabbat, as well as several provisions that were seen as targeting Orthodox Jewish residents and Jews who traveled into the town from Monroe County in New York.
While eruvim have been the source of numerous political battles throughout the country, this appears to be the first time it has led to a recall effort. But recalls happen for all types of reasons – from policy difference on schools, parks, spending and development to personal issues to attempts to gain partisan advantages. Despite general perceptions, recalls are rarely about clear-cut corruption or criminal activity.
In the Mahwah recall case, members of the Town Council who support the eruv ban and the other controversial provisions appear to be supporting the recall effort. While this is certain to engender bad feelings, it is not an unusual occurrence. There are many examples of intra-governmental strife leading to elected officials looking to the recall to change their working partners. Occasionally, both sides launch competing recalls against each other.
For Laforet, the post-November issue of working with his colleagues is less important than surviving the vote. And recalls are different than most elections. Most elected officials seeking reelection win that race – surveys have suggested that an official will win reelection somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of the time. Recalls are quite different, enough that Laforet certainly would have reason to be concerned. From 2011-2017, 741 faced a recall vote nationwide (another 141 or so resigned in the face of a recall). Approximately 60 percent of the recall elections resulted in the official getting kicked out of office.
But Laforet can look at New Jersey, which has an unusual history with recalls compared to other states, and perhaps can see reasons for hope. New Jersey simply doesn’t use the recall that much.
New Jersey is the second to last state to adopt the recall statewide, and they did so overwhelmingly. In 1993. Almost 75 percent voted to approve the recall. But despite the state voters overwhelming interested in adopting a recall law, the law itself was drafted to prevent an abundance of recalls from taking place. The reason for the lack of recalls is the amount of signatures needed to get the recalls on the ballot. In many instances it requires that voters collect the signatures of 25 percent of registered voters. This is different than in many states, where the signature total is tracked by voter turnout in the last election. For the top elected official in the state, a recall would need over 1.3 million valid signatures. As a point of comparison, this is more than double what was needed in the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and almost 500,000 more signatures than was needed to get the recall of California Governor Gray Davis on the ballot in 2003, in a state that is three and a half times the size of New Jersey today.
The few recalls that have gotten to the ballot have seen elected officials survive the vote. The last recall was against West Wildwood City Commissioner Scott Golden in 2011 and Mayor Herbert Frederick and Commissioner Gerard McNamara in December 2010. All three of them survived the vote. So did Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez and Point Pleasant Beach Mayor Vincent Barrella in 2010.While in 2017, Park Ridge Mayor Terry Maguire resigned in the face of a recall petition. The last recalls to actually remove officials took place in 2009 in Wildwood and in Frankford. No other state has this unusual record of ballot box failure. While this may be a random occurrence, Laforet can certainly see that New Jersey voters are willing to retain officials even after a quarter of their fellow registered voters called for their removal.
The Mahwah recall may be the first over an eruv, but it is definitely part of a nationwide phenomenon. For Mahwah, for the rest of the council and especially for Mayor Laforet, the recall will certainly have an impact well beyond one vote.
By Joshua Spivak
Joshua Spivak is a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Election Blog.