The rules for recall elections in Memphis are about to be reinterpreted.
The bar will be raised from roughly 11,000 petition signatures to roughly 65,000 signatures. After researching the issue, city attorney Sara Hall has concluded that state law, which requires the higher number, trumps the city charter, the source of the lower number that has been widely reported. And whether you like Mayor Willie Herenton or hate him, that's a good thing. Here's why.
There are some 435,000 registered voters in the city of Memphis, not counting cemeteries. In the 2003 mayoral election, 103,226 people voted, which was 23 percent of the electorate at that time. Herenton got 72,043 votes, nearly three times as many as challenger John Willingham.
Home Rule Amendment 27 to the Memphis City Charter, approved in 1966, says a mayor can be recalled if petitions are signed by a number of qualified voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last mayoral election. That means 10,323 certified signatures puts this question on the ballot at the next general election: "Shall the Mayor be Recalled?" If a majority of voters favor a recall, "the office shall be vacated when the Election Commission shall declare the results, and shall immediately be occupied by the person so designated to succeed the mayor in case of his death, inability for any reason to serve, or resignation."
A recall petition cannot be filed until after the first two years of a mayor's four-year term. But a case can be made that the more popular the mayor, the easier it is to get a recall question on the ballot. Herenton's closest call was in 1991, when he was the challenger and got 122,596 votes to incumbent Dick Hackett's 122,454 votes. Including perennial candidate Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, a total of 247,973 votes were cast -- a 65 percent turnout. A recall petition in 1994 would have required 24,797 signatures.
Herenton has been reelected easily three times since then. Lower turnouts and less formidable candidates may indicate voter apathy or voter satisfaction. Either way, the charter gives the losers, the 338,000 people who didn't vote in the 2003 election, and political hired guns a second bite at the apple.
Hall, a Herenton appointee, began researching the recall provision in December. She stated her position in an interview and letter to the Flyer in response to our inquiries.
"Under the Tennessee constitution, any law of general application trumps our charter," she said. She said Memphis could pass a home rule ordinance requiring a greater number of signatures than required by state law but not a lower number.
The Tennessee Code says recall petitions "shall be signed by at least 15 percent of those registered to vote in the municipality or county." In Memphis, that comes out to 64,500 signatures -- an appropriately big number for a big question.
In a press conference last week, Herenton characterized one recall organizer as "a societal misfit" who should not be taken seriously. But it doesn't matter if the organizers are misfits, pillars of the community, or -- as is perfectly legal -- residents of Germantown. If the charter provision applied, the will of 72,043 people who voted could be undone and a new election called by 10,323 people who voted for someone else or didn't vote at all.
If a recall is approved, the charter provision promptly heaves out the mayor and hands the job to someone else. If you think "the person so designated to succeed the mayor" is clear language, then you are not familiar with lawyers, local history, or the Memphis City Council. This is an invitation to a brawl. In the California recall election of 2003 in which Governor Gray Davis was ousted and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ballot had two parts: a recall question and a list of candidates to replace him.
Memphis is bigger than Willie Herenton or any other politician. If someone has evidence that Herenton has broken the law, let them give it to the FBI or the district attorney for investigation. If someone wants to replace Herenton, let them run against him in 2007, persuade someone else to run against him, or vote for his next opponent.