EDITORIAL: Swallow Scandal Should Push Lawmakers to Give Power Back to Citizens

When Republican John Swallow announced Thursday he will resign as Attorney General on December 3rd, a truly unprecedented event took place in Utah politics. No elected official in modern Utah history has received such a focused spotlight for possible wrongdoing, who refused for almost a year to step down. The question “Why won’t Swallow just step down?” was repeated so many times, and so loudly by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, moderates, and conservatives for the past ten months that it  became a joke within Utah’s political circles due to how unlikely it appeared.

But, amid the talk of bribes to U.S. Senators, campaign cash not being reported, lavish vacations paid for targets of investigations, mismanagement of the Attorney General’s office, and the perpetual scenarios of Swallow receiving criminal charges and/or being impeached and/or stepping down and/or weathering the storm and/or…and/or…and/or, one situation was never placed on the table: a citizens referendum demanding that we the people remove Swallow from office.

In Swallow’s statement to the press announcing his resignation, he said “today is truly a sad day in Utah because an election has been overturned.” Regardless of your feelings towards Swallow, it is true that the only legal process existing in Utah to remove a sitting elected official takes place far, far, away from the general public. Despite approval ratings down the drain, and a massive 71 percent of voters calling for his resignation, there was simply no way for the public to remove Swallow from office directly—because lawmakers have not seen fit to give citizens this option.

Across the nation, 38 states have some form of recall and 19 states have the direct recall of state officials. In those states, citizens can start petitions to recall an elected official from office when that elected official has breached the public trust. If enough signatures of voters are gathered, the decision of whether or not to remove that politician from office goes on the ballot. Those citizens are empowered by their governments, and, knowing the public has the power to remove them, elected officials are more likely to listen to the will of the people.

In June of this year, the idea of creating some form of citizen recall was proposed in the Utah Legislature, but promptly shot down by lawmakers from both sides of the isle. Senator Lyle Hillyard (Republican – Logan) said creating a citizen recall process would hinder Utah, pointing to the events in Wisconsin where citizens attempted, though ultimately failed, to remove Governor Scott Walker from office. Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) said the only recall process necessary was the standard election process that takes place every 2 or 4 years, and Senator Kevin Van Tassell (Republican – Vernal) expressed concern that individuals could hijack the political process. Those are all perfectly valid concerns, and deserve to be considered.

What lawmakers ignore, however, is the paralysis a single elected official can place on state agencies, the Utah State Legislature, and the general public by staying in office. They ignore the possibility that a major scandal could come to light five days after an elected official is sworn into office for a four year term. They ignore the persistent, loud, and multi-partisan demand that can arise from the public to remove a bad egg.

Lawmakers also ignore (or, perhaps, are terrified) that recall elections are the most direct mechanism to hold elected officials accountable to the public, aside from an election itself. Elected officials would be forced to explain their positions more thoroughly, listen to the will of the people more completely, engage the public more passionately, and display confidence in their convictions more deeply.

Utah’s politicians would be forced to become better public servants and less willing to listen to special interests under a system that has the recall as a check and balance on our public servants.

The concern that the recall process would be used and abused by a minority should be of little concern. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that in the nearly 100 years the recall has been available in any state, a recall election has only taken place 26 times. It also fails to take into account Utah’s cultural heritage, a heritage that generally trusts in authority and uses methodical, measured responses to deal with issues.  If lawmakers are truly concerned that the process would be abused, simply set a high water-mark to place a recall in the ballot. The current system of signature gathering to place initiatives and referendums on the ballot provides a model that could be modified to ensure that the process was not abused—in Utah’s history, 20 initiatives or referendums have appeared on our ballots, and only six were successful in their respective goals.

In short, recall elections would extremely rare, would only successful when the public truly deems it necessary.

It is Utah Political Capitol’s belief that the Utah State Legislature should have faith in the citizens of Utah and start the process to enshrine the recall option in our state constitution. The issue extends beyond the passing storm created by the Swallow scandal, speaking instead to the underlying need for our elected officials to be held accountable to the people of Utah.

It is time to create the recall and force lawmakers to remember who they work for.

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