The recall effort against Alex Tsai is now over. The turnout rate of 24% was far lower than the necessary 50%, so Tsai will continue in office.
In principle, I believe that recalls should only be used in the most egregious cases. One of the great things about democracy is that it allows a society to make a decision about who will make the important decisions for the next time period and then move on. Once the decision is made, there is no need to keep fighting. In an authoritarian system, this is not the case. Decisions can be reversed at any time, so you can never stop defending your position. Democracies have institutionalized the power struggle so that it will be held at a specific time, according to specific rules, and it has a clear end. After the fight, everyone can move onto other matters.
Recalls threaten to upset that logic. If recalls are too easy, losers have a strong incentive to reopen old fights as soon as possible. For me, the overriding principle of recalls is that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official.
Let’s think about a few hypothetical cases. Case One: In 1992, Fidel Ramos won a seven-way race with only 23% to become the president of the Philippines. In other words, 77% of Filipinos voted for someone else. In a recall you don’t need to agree on an alternative, you only need to agree that you don’t want the current officeholder. All of the losers might have been able to mobilize their backers to throw Ramos out so that they would have another shot at the office. Even if Ramos were brilliant in office and his support only increased and never decreased, opponents would have ample opportunity to recall him. In other words, even if every person who originally voted for Ramos continued to support him, he might be vulnerable to recall. Of course, none of the other six aspirants were very popular either. After the recall and by-election, the new losers (perhaps including Ramos’s supporters) might start all over again with a new recall drive. Happily for the Philippines, this never-ending cycle didn’t happen. Instead, Ramos turned out to be a force for stability, and many people consider “Steady Eddy” to have been the best president in modern Filipino history.
Case Two: In 2004, Taipei City District 2 elected 10 legislators. The eighth and tenth seats were won by the TSU’s David Huang and independent Li Ao, an ultra-Chinese nationalist. These two, coming from opposite extremes of the political spectrum, combined for roughly 12% of the total vote. Suppose a coalition of the mainstream parties decided to launch a recall effort of the middle against the extremes. The 12% who supported the two winners would be utterly helpless to defend their favorite legislator. Even if every person who originally voted for Huang and Li continued to ardently support them, the other 88% of the electorate would be able to easily vote for recall. I’ve ignored the 50% turnout threshold so far, but this mainstream coalition might be able to reach that barrier. Each side would turn out lots of voters who hated the guy from the other side, and some of the moderate voters might also dislike the extremist on their own side. If they explicitly worked together and each major party told its supporters to vote in both recall elections (regardless of whether they voted yes or no), they might be able to turn out 50%. This would literally be tyranny of the majority, with the major parties cooperating to deny representation to smaller minorities.
What would justify a recall? I believe that to revoke a mandate, people who originally voted for the elected official must turn against him or her en masse. It should not be sufficient for angry voters who have always opposed the politician to get even angrier. If they can’t persuade people who originally voted for the politician to change sides, the original election result should stand.
This is the problem I had with the recall election effort against Alex Tsai. Sure, Tsai says inflammatory things and he is probably corrupt, but he was inflammatory and (probably) corrupt back in 2012 when his district gave him 33,000 more votes than the runner-up. He is still fundamentally the same person; we haven’t suddenly learned something new and unexpected about him. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that his former voters suddenly started clamoring to get rid of him. As far as I can tell, what happened is that he offended people who have always opposed him and made them dislike him even more intensely.
Imagine a legislator who owned a company that was selling tainted cooking oil or another who was caught up in a spectacular and lurid corruption case (such as fishing bags of cash out of hiding places in a fish pond). With such sudden new and damning information, many former supporters might turn against those two legislators, regardless of their party preferences. In such cases, recalls might be warranted. Short of that sort of smoking gun, it is best to simply wait until the next general election.
Postscript: While the recall against Alex Tsai officially failed, I think it might have partially succeeded. The effort got 24% turnout, which is an astonishing number. I had expected them to get about half of that. Consider that in last week’s by-election in Taichung City, with both major parties mobilizing as intensely as they could, turnout was only 30%. In this recall, one side completely sat out, and the politicians from the other side were noticeably absent. This effort was orchestrated by a ragtag, underfunded group of political amateurs. Yet roughly as many people voted against Tsai yesterday as voted for the DPP legislative candidate in 2012 when there was a presidential race driving voters to the polls. There is almost no way to spin this as a triumph for Tsai. (Admittedly, he went before the TV cameras and tried to do exactly that. He’s pretty brazen.) Other KMT figures might collectively decide that it isn’t worth the risk to let Tsai run for re-election. His district has always been considered safe for the blue camp, but the Sean Lien experience should be fresh in everyone’s minds. The KMT can’t afford to risk losing another race with a controversial candidate. It has plenty of boring and safe candidates who are locks to win. (Tsai has said that he won’t run again, but (a) that was when he was running for mayor and (b) he’s been known to change his mind.) The Appendectomy Project might not have cut him out of the legislature this week, but it might have demonstrated that Tsai is unpopular enough that the KMT will finish the job for them in a few months.