With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continuing to face heavy fire for allegedly playing politics with traffic on the George Washington Bridge last fall, you might think he's in danger of being recalled by irate Garden State voters. After all, as recent actions in Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado have shown, recalls against state officials can quickly catch fire. New Jersey is also a state with a history of turning out governors at the ballot box.
Well, not so fast. Thanks to hurdles in the state's recall law, Christie has little to fear from pitchfork-wielding voters... yet.
It's an odd situation. After all, New Jersey is the most recent state to adopt a political recall measure (meaning one that can be launched for any reason, and does not require a showing of criminal action or incompetence). Garden State voters overwhelmingly supported — by a more than 75 percent margin — bringing the recall to the state back in 1993. New Jersey voters have also exhibited a propensity for tossing out their executives. They kicked out two gubernatorial incumbents seeking re-election in the last 20 years (Jim Florio in 1993 and Jon Corzine in 2009). Yet despite the voters' great enthusiasm, the actual language of the law has proved a formidable barrier for recall proponents. And that helps Christie.
The first big problem for recall proponents is that voters will have to wait a year. New Jersey bars a recall from starting until the governor has served one year in his current term. Since he was just inaugurated, voters will have to wait to get the recall started. This law is significantly harder than ones in most jurisdictions. Some allow a recall to start immediately, others require a three- or six-month grace period. Wisconsin and Michigan also have a one-year reprieve. That lock-up time is designed to prevent a quick rerun of the election.
The other issue is the overwhelming amount of signatures needed to get on the ballot. New Jersey law mandates that voters collect the signatures of 25 percent of registered voters. That's 1,377,762 valid signatures. This is more than double what was needed in Wisconsin to get Scott Walker's recall on the ballot. It is also almost 500,000 more signatures than were needed to get the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis on the ballot in 2003, despite the fact that California's population then was more than 3.5 times the size of New Jersey's today. Wisconsin and California also have more lenient and more established signature gathering practices. New Jersey is likely to have many more failed signatures. The state does allow a lot of time to collect the signatures — 320 days, probably the longest timeframe in the country — but voters would still need an unprecedented amount of signatures just to get on the ballot.
As such, New Jersey voters have barely used the recall. Over the last three years, there have been at least 426 recalls across the country that have resulted in an election or a resignation. According to my research, New Jersey held only one of those — back in January 2011.
There have been plenty of other attempts, but none got to the ballot. There was a high-profile campaign against Sen. Robert Menendez that was thrown out by the state's Supreme Court, and there was apparently serious discussion of whether Democrats should launch a recall against Christie and his lieutenant governor during his first term, but that was abandoned. The signature total is simply too high a barrier to get a recall moving against most officials.
The real value to a recall campaign may be to force a resignation. This happens very frequently. Across the country, 22 officials resigned this past year in the face of recall campaigns. It also could be used to push for an impeachment. This happened to Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham in 1988. But, with the lock-up period in force, even that is not much of a threat.
Gov. Chris Christie has many challenges in trying to woo back voters and improve his 2016 prospects. But a recall is not something he needs to fear.