wplg logo

Here’s what a recall election is -- and how Schwarzenegger went from actor to governor as a result of one

There have been only 2 times in U.S. history in which a governor has been successfully recalled

A voter casts a ballot for the California recall election at a vote center at Union Station, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
A voter casts a ballot for the California recall election at a vote center at Union Station, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu) (Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The state of California had a lot of the nation’s attention earlier this week when it held a recall election to determine if Gov. Gavin Newsom would remain in office.

Newsom prevailed fairly easily, avoiding the distinction of becoming the third governor in U.S. history to be recalled from office and replaced.

But what is a recall election? Do they often succeed? Here’s a brief synopsis.


What is a recall?

A recall election is a process in which voters can remove an elected official before that official’s term in office is over.

Recalls are initiated when a petition is signed by a sufficient number of voters to remove an official.

Specific grounds for recall can vary by each state.

How common are recall elections?

On a local and state level, they can be fairly common, whether it’s for city politicians, state legislators or members of Congress. For example, in 2011, there were 150 recall elections in 17 states.

However, they are less common when trying to recall state governors.

How many times has the governor of a state been recalled?

While recalls occur often for state and congressional offices, it’s rare when a governor is recalled from office. It’s only happened twice, the first time being in 1921 when Gov. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled after a dispute about state-owned industries.

The latest and most newsworthy recall came in 2003, when California Gov. Gray Davis was successfully recalled amid a recession and electricity crisis.

The replacement governor chosen by voters was movie icon Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who appealed to Democrats by supporting abortion rights and gun control.

Schwarzenegger, who collected 48.6% of the vote to beat out two other candidates, served as California’s governor until 2011.

In 1998, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham had a recall against him approved, but he was impeached and left office before the recall got on the ballot.


About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.