In a representative democracy, representative recall provides a procedure by which constituents can remove a representative from office before his or her term ends. It is a means of expressing formal disapproval of such a representative.

This constitutes an instrument of direct democracy or of mediated direct democracy. Some consider this measure alone sufficient to satisfy grassroots democracy advocates, but most find it inadequate without other measures, e.g. referenda, electoral reform, bioregional democracy, that increase political accountability, and increase the role of citizens.

History of recall in North America

The recall process became available to Americans during the Progressive era reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which spread across the United States. The ability to recall elected officials came along with the initiative and referendum processes as part of an early wave of electoral reforms.

The movement in California was spearheaded by then-Governor Hiram Johnson, a reformist, as a "precautionary measure by which a recalcitrant official can be removed." It was instituted as a way for the populace to fight back against political corruption and the powerful railroads and banks, which had enormous influence on state governments.

Eighteen states today allow the recall of state officials, but, before 2003, only one Governor had ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, North Dakota's Lynn J. Frazier was recalled over a dispute about state-owned industries.

Until Gray Davis's recall in October of 2003, no California statewide official has ever been recalled, though there have been 117 previous attempts. Only seven of those even made it onto the ballot, all for state legislators. Every Governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has been subject to a recall effort, but none until Gray Davis, the 37th Governor of California, had to face a special recall election. In 2003, several million citizens petitioned the government for a gubernatorial recall election.

The Canadian province of British Columbia has representative recall. In that province, voters in a provincial riding can petition to have a sitting representative removed from office, even a Premier presently leading a government. If enough voters sign the petition, a referendum takes place, and if a successful by-election follows as soon as possible, it gives the opportunity to replace the politician in question. Fourteen United States states have similar measures in their constitutions - and many more municipalities - but generally these measures fail to operate more readily than in British Columbia, which in January 2003 achieved a record twenty-two such recall efforts (all of which ultimately failed, however).

Recall via internal political party mechanisms

An actual recall law need not always apply to all representatives. Given effective party discipline and laws which give parties the power to disempower sitting representatives, then an informal system of representative recall becomes possible. Again in Canada, the federal Canadian Alliance (CA) has made representative recall part of its platform for electoral reform, and implements it (in a way) within its party. If the members of any CA riding association vote to recall a CA federal Member of Parliament presently in office, that representative loses all funding and support for re-election, and other CA members cannot sit in caucus with them, nor share party funds with them. In effect, these measures force the resignation of the recalled member, as they become ineffective due to political isolation, social pressure and ridicule.

See also: representative democracy, electoral reform, grassroots democracy