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Can Social Media Recall Campaigns Pull The Plug On Gov. Rauner?

Bruce Rauner at Inauguration 2015
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

A number of recall petitions from people dissatisfied with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are circulating on social media platforms, but these efforts do not meet the legal requirements for recall in the state.

The petition with the most support, posted on thepetitionsite.com, has over 4,000 signatures with a goal set at 600,000. 

Besides claiming that the governor’s budget agenda disenfranchises the poor, elderly and disabled, the petition is critical of Rauner’s Right to Work campaign. The petition goes on to say, “Governor Bruce Rauner will only benefit his own small circle and the wealthiest in Illinois and, as everyone knows, trickle-down economics will kill the economy.”

Merrill Cole, an English and Literature professor at Western Illinois University, added his name to the petition. Cole says he is against the governor’s “entire agenda.” Rauner’s office declined to comment on the petitions. 

“I’m really opposed to Rauner’s philosophical position and the kinds of things he’s trying to say. It’s not just that it affects me and the place where I work, and people I work with. It’s also a way of governing which I think is wrong,” Cole says. 

However, political experts say such online petitions could do little more than show discontent.

“To the extent this is some kind of a movement by the people, 4,000 signatures online where you don’t know who they are or how many times people have signed it — I mean, that’s not exactly a groundswell,” says Chris Mooney, director of the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “But, I think it is a reflection of the frustration that people are feeling. Not only with the governor, but with the budget impasses.”

Another expert agrees. “It’s a pretty stiff bar to cross,” says Ron Michaelson, a professor of Political Science as the University of Illinois Springfield. “The likelihood of recalling the governor between now and 2018 would be no better than 1 percent.” Michaelson is a former director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, which oversees the recall process.

Voters approved the recall amendment to the Illinois Constitution in the 2010 general election. While the concept has had its supporters over the years, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office in 2009 catalyzed the push for recall in the state. Before voters approved the amendment, impeachment was the only option to get rid of a sitting governor.

“We’re charting new territory,” Michaelson says. He says gathering signatures is an uphill battle for voters. He estimates that for the upcoming 2016 general election, over half a million signatures would be needed. Also, the governor has the right to challenge signatures.

The process is complicated. In order for Rauner to get the boot, an affidavit with a notice of intent to circulate a petition has to be approved by the State Board of Elections. But, that affidavit has to first carry signatures of at least 20 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate to throw a recall effort into motion. And it doesn’t get any easier for those who might seek to recall Rauner — under the current legislature, half of the signatures in each chamber would have to come from Republicans. If petitioners passed that hurdle, they would be required to get a minimum of 100 eligible voters from at least 25 different counties across the state to sign their petitions, along with hundreds of thousands of other Illinoisans.

Only official petition forms issued by the State Board of Elections are valid. Online petitions do not meet the eligibility requirements for filing. Petitions on an online site, like thepetitionsite.com, run by advocacy group Care2, can only give people a forum to voice their concerns.

Although Cole supports current recall efforts, he acknowledges their limitations.  “Sometimes [online] petitions have greater symbolic force than actual legal force,” Cole says. “Recall would be one way, perhaps, of putting an end to it. But, I’m not putting all my eggs into that particular basket.”

That may be a wise choice when one considers how a well-funded recall campaign played out in one of Illinois’ neighboring states.

“It’s very difficult to get a recall on the ballot. But it’s more difficult to get people to vote for it,” Mooney says. As was the case three years ago, when Wisconsin voters gathered nearly a million signatures to put Gov. Scott Walker on the chopping block.  However, Mooney says, Wisconsin’s recall process is simpler than Illinois’ because it bypasses lawmakers and goes straight to the public.  “In that case, if you get enough people mad at you and they’re organized enough, as with Walker and organized labor, they were able to get it on the ballot,” Mooney says. 

Even with a large number of people signing petitions, the recall attempt was unsuccessful at the election. “With Scott Walker, even many people who may not have agreed with his policy positions and some of the things he did — objected to the recall itself,” Mooney says.

He says the buzz surrounding a potential recall could also backfire on Rauner’s detractors and instead boost the governor’s popularity. “One of the reasons [Walker’s] being floated as a serious presidential contender now is because he took on the unions, had the recall election, and managed to generate a lot of enthusiasm for his candidacy among those who are anti-union…like the Koch brothers.”

It’s too early to tell if Rauner’s political career will follow suit. The governor recently vetoed the Democratic budget proposal. He did sign off on spending for K-12 education, but he is sticking to his demands that lawmakers approve some of his pro-business agenda before he is willing to talk budget compromise. It seems likely that when the state’s new fiscal year begins Wednesday, there will be no budget in place.  

“Anybody who works for the state or contracts with the state, or get services from the state — which is virtually everybody — is concerned right now.  And we don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Mooney says. “It’s kind of like when you’re a little kid, and your mom and dad are fighting. You don’t know what’s going on, but it’s scary and you want it to stop.  I think that’s where we are right now and this (online recall push) is just a manifestation of that.”

Cole says he hopes that more calls for change would at least get the governor’s attention. “You know, sometimes when you have a puppy you have to rub his nose in his own dirt to make him know not to do it anymore,” Cole says. “If this happened to Rauner, maybe he will back away from some of the crazier ideas he’s floated and work some sort of compromise. I don’t know. But, I think if he pushed it too far, then a recall becomes a real possibility.”

Jacqualine Simone Williams is a graduate student in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. She spent 15 years as an independent reporter with the Milwaukee Courier and was an intern with Milwaukee Public Radio, WUWM. She is a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago.
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