Letter: The use of recalls in ND and the US

Joshua Spivak writes, "The Peace Garden State was one of the earliest to adopt the recall law for statewide officials, which it did with the overwhelming support of voters in 1920."

Letter to the editor FSA

In 2023, North Dakota is witnessing a mini-boom in recall efforts across the state. In less than half a year, the state has seen the resignation of a Bismarck School Board member; a vote scheduled against three Williston Basin School Board members for August 8; and petition efforts started against both the Grand Forks City Council president and a Horace City Council member. Should other elected officials be concerned that voters are now restless? The reality is that the recent recalls follow a long tradition for the state.

The Peace Garden State was one of the earliest to adopt the recall law for statewide officials, which it did with the overwhelming support of voters in 1920. North Dakota became a direct democracy pioneer by becoming the first state in the country to use a recall against its governor. It also remains the only state to recall and remove other state-wide officials, Attorney General William Lemke and the Agriculture and Labor Secretary John Hagan. All three of these recalls took place in one blow out special election in 1921. At the same time, the state also proved that recalls are no detriment to future career success. The ousted governor, Lynn Frazier, went on to serve three terms in the US Senate. Lemke was later elected to the House and ran for president as a third party candidate and Hagan returned to office as secretary 16 years later.

Monday was the last day Landstrom could resign before being automatically placed on the ballot.

In recent years, the Peace Garden State may not be the most prominent user of recalls, but voters throughout the state have hardly been shy about using the device to rein in elected officials. Since 2011, 21 elected officials have been kicked out in a recall, and another three have resigned office. Twelve officials have faced the voters early, but survived the election.

This puts North Dakota among the more active users of the recall nationwide, thanks in part to the state’s robust law. While the laws are unclear in some states, throughout the country either 19 or 20 states allow recalls of at least some state-level officials, and a total of about 40 states have some sort of recall provision for local officials (Barring a surprising US Supreme Court decision, federal laws do not seem to allow recalls of U.S. senators and House representatives). Some states have a “Malfeasance Standard” – which limits recalls to those who have committed a specific statutorily delineated violation. North Dakota, like many of the most prominent recall states, has a “Political Recall” law, which allows recalls to be launched for practically any reason whatsoever.

The result is that over the last 12 years, North Dakota would rank in the top 15 in terms of use of the recall. While none of the recalls have been as prominent as the ones that targeted the governors of Wisconsin and California, North Dakota has managed to receive some attention for its willingness to let the voters decide. In the coming months, we may see voters across the state get that option once again.


Joshua Spivak is the author of “ Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom .” He is a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law's California Constitution Center and a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. 

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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