In October of 1926, Manitowoc attorney I.J. Nash wrote a letter to the editor, urging his fellow citizens to reject a statewide constitutional amendment to allow the recall of public officials.
Nash, the former Wisconsin state revisor of statutes, said such a constitutional provision would make Wisconsin the "laughingstock of the country." A recall proceeding, he warned, is "slow, conducted with passion, expensive, sets neighbor against neighbor... and convinces few that justice has been served."
Eighty-five years later, as nine current state senators contemporaneously face recall elections, Nash has been proven right.
In 1903, the city of Los Angeles became the first U.S. governmental body to adopt a recall procedure. In 1908, Oregon became the first state to apply the recall to elected state officials. Between 1908 and 1914, at the peak of the Progressive movement, nine states adopted some form of state official recalls.
Yet when a recall constitutional amendment was first put to the Wisconsin public by the La Follette Progressives in 1913, the public rejected it by a ratio of nearly two-to-one.
The amendment returned in 1926 and passed statewide with 50.6% of the vote. The winning margin of 4,743 votes was, ironically, less than the 7,300-vote deficit currently faced by Supreme Court candidate Joanne Kloppenburg as her hopeless recount effort soldiers on.
But when the Wisconsin amendment passed, few thought it would be applied to state legislators. In 1926, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and state representatives had two-year terms - only state senators were elected for four years. It wasn't until 1967 that the constitution was amended to allow the governor and others four-year terms.
Thus, since the constitutional amendment barred recall proceedings against elected officials until they were in office one full year, "what was left of a two-year term would not be important enough to hold a recount election on," editorialized the Milwaukee Journal on Halloween of 1926. (For this reason today, we most likely won't see any serious recall efforts against sitting Assembly members in 2012.)
Consequently, it took 70 years after this amendment passed before the first state elected official was recalled from office.
In 1926, when the amendment passed, the primary concern was about judges. It was argued that members of the bench would lose their independence if they were under the constant threat of being removed due to an unpopular ruling.
As the Milwaukee Journal editorialized, the amendment threatens a judge with recall if he offends a fourth of the voters or "interests able to spend a great deal of money to get what they want."
Recall supporters argued that it would be used rarely, as it would be extremely difficult to gather the required 25% of voter signatures needed to force an election. In 1926, transportation was cumbersome, and news dissemination was slow. If there was a recall effort going on, you'd probably hear about it from your neighbor, whom you probably suspected of stealing your chickens anyway.
Contrast 1926 with 2011, when almost one-third of the state Senate is up for recall. This year, we've entered an era nobody could have envisioned - the era of the perpetual campaign.
While it was difficult to get 25% of the electors to sign a petition in 1926, now it can be done with relative ease. Facebook is no longer just for checking out how fat your high school classmates have gotten - it has become a tool to mobilize thousands of people instantaneously.
In 2011, once someone agrees to sign a recall petition, their name goes on an electronic list forever. Anytime one of the aforementioned moneyed "offended interests" feels like rallying their supporters together to call another election, they can just mine that list for signatures. Even the most Republican state Senate district has 15,000 Democrats, and vice-versa. The campaigning may never, ever stop.
And this perpetual campaign will have consequences. We may think everything is political now, but once everyone is subject to the threat of a recall at any time, we will reminisce about the "thoughtful independent legislator" era in the same way we reminisce about the days when women melted at the sight of a powerful mustache.
Just as prior generations worried about the influence of special interests on judges, so will that influence be even more intense on lawmakers.
Even more disturbing are the reasons for the current recalls. Republicans are being recalled because state employees are getting less "stuff." Democrats are being recalled because - well, because Republicans are being recalled, so they might as well be. All these offending reasons are the byproduct of official legislative actions - or, in the Democrats' case, thwarting official action by fleeing the state.
Even if most state senators escape these recall attempts, the effects on state politics will be enduring.
Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.