Dictionary of Wisconsin History: Recall

The Wisconsin Historical Society provides a brief history of recalls in Wisconsin in its online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

Term: Recall Elections (in Wisconsin)


Article XIII, Sec. 12, of the Wisconsin Constitution provides for recall of state officials. Wisconsin is among 19 states that permit recall elections and, as in most of the other states, no grounds are required. In Wisconsin, any state, judicial, congressional or legislative official can face a recall election if enough signatures are collected.

Legal History

Neither the draft of 1846 nor the final Constitution of 1848 authorized recall elections. In 1907, Progressive Republicans began researching recalls, and in 1914 an amendment went before Wisconsin voters. It would have authorized recall elections for all elected offices except judges. Voters rejected it soundly, 140,344 to 77,876. In 1922 and 1923, Gov. John J. Blaine revived the idea by urging a recall amendment in his State of the State speeches to the legislature. Lawmakers authorized a referendum to amend the constitution and voters approved it on Nov. 2, 1926. The vote was decided by just a 1% margin – 205,868 for the ability to recall officials and 201,125 against it. The 1926 amendment is the basis of today’s recalls, though it was amended in 1981 to authorize primaries when necessary.

Earlier Recalls

The first use of the new amendment came in 1932, when Sen. Otto Mueller of Wausau faced recall after breaking Republican Party lines. His constituents valued him more than his party, however, and he survived easily. Mueller’s was the only recall of a Wisconsin state legislator for more than 50 years. In 1977, a rash of recalls broke out around Wisconsin. Five La Crosse school board members, as well as judges from Dane and Juneau counties, were all recalled. During the 1980s, various town supervisors, a mayor, and other local officials were also thrown out by voters, including the entire board of the Town of Lawrence in Rusk County. In 1990, Rep. Jim Holperin of Eagle River survived a recall attempt spawned by his support for Indian treaty rights. In 1996, Sen. George Petak of Racine was successfully recalled after he cast the deciding vote to raise taxes for Miller Stadium in Milwaukee. In 2003, Sen. Gary George was recalled after breaking ranks with the Democratic Party on key votes.

Wisconsin Recall Timeline

1926: Wisconsin Constitution amended to allow recall elections.
1932: Sen. Otto Mueller survived the first recall attempt on a Wisconsin legislator.
1977: Five La Crosse school board members and judges from Dane and Juneau counties were recalled.
1982: Two Town of Washington (Eau Claire County) officials were recalled.
1985: A Town of Onalaska (La Crosse County) supervisor was recalled.
1988: The entire board of the Town of Lawrence (Rusk County) was recalled.
1989: The mayor of Hudson (St. Croix Co.) was recalled.
1990: Rep. Jim Holperin survived a recall election.
1996: Sen. George Petak was recalled.
2003: Sen. Gary George was recalled.
2011: Senators Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Dave Hansen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jim Holperin, Luther Olsen and Robert Wirch all survived attempted recalls
2011: Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke were recalled.

Schaffner, Margaret A. “The Recall.” Comparative Legislation Bulletin no. 12 (Madison, 1907); Eau Claire Leader, November 14, 1914; Capital Times, January 11, 1923; Laws of Wisconsin 1925, ch. 270; Wisconsin Blue Book, 1927:590, 1981:872-874, 1991-92:874; “Recall of State Officials.” National Conference of State Legislators (at http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=16581); Mayers, Jeff. “Wisconsin’s Recall Fever.” WI: Wisconsin Interest (Thiensville, Wis., Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) vol. 13, no. 1 (winter 2004): 1-5)