Seattle Will Have a Recall Election After All. How Will It Work?

The petition to remove Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant adds intrigue to this political season.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 5, 2021

The campaign to recall Kshama Sawant has been about as easy to follow as a Capitol Hill roundabout. Need proof? At one point, the Seattle City Council member’s supporters gathered signatures to place her potential removal on November’s ballot.

That didn’t end up happening. The Recall Sawant campaign failed to (or intentionally didn’t, depending on who you believe) submit its signatures in time to join races for Seattle’s next mayor, multiple city council positions, and the King County executive. But last week, King County Elections announced that it had certified the petition, meaning we will have a recall election after all on December 7, 2021.

How will it work, and how did we get here? Let us explain.

Why is Kshama Sawant up for recall?

Let’s start with the literal, as-legally-stated reasons. In September of 2020, King County Superior Court judge Jim Rogers reviewed six charges made against the Seattle City Council member, who was elected for a third term in 2019. Two of them—that Sawant used her office to encourage the occupation of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, and that she helped create CHOP—were dismissed. But Rogers deemed the other four charges legally sufficient (which doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true). After Sawant appealed the decision, the state’s highest court ruled the recall could proceed based on the accusations that Sawant:

  • Used city resources to support the Tax Amazon ballot initiative in early 2020.
  • Admitted hundreds of protesters into City Hall on June 9, 2020, when the building was closed by law due to Covid-19 restrictions.
  • Led a group of protesters to Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan’s house, the address of which is protected under a confidentiality program. 

In May, a month after the judgment, Sawant fessed up to using city money and employees to back the “Tax Amazon” initiative. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission fined her $3,515.74, twice the amount of city funds she’d spent on the campaign.

The motivation for her removal, however, is not necessarily limited to those bulleted accusations. During Sawant’s appeal of the charges, her attorney argued that the recall effort stemmed from “amorphous political criticisms.” Whether that’s true or not, it’s undeniable that Sawant is a political lightning rod; she attracts extremity both in support and censure. That those to the right of the prominent socialist would seize an opportunity to oust her via recall, no matter how severe the charges, is hardly surprising.

How does a recall election come about?

In King County, any registered voter can petition to remove an elected official from office before their term is up. King County Superior Court then reviews the petition to see if it meets standards set by the state.

The petitioner must demonstrate that the official “has committed an act or acts of malfeasance,” or “violated the oath of office,” or “been guilty of any two or more of the acts specified in the Constitution as grounds for recall.” In this case, “malfeasance” means “any wrongful conduct that affects, interrupts, or interferes with the performance of official duty”; “the performance of a duty in an improper manner”; or “the commission of an unlawful act.” Meanwhile, violating the oath of office refers to “the neglect or knowing failure…to perform faithfully a duty imposed by law.”

If this all sounds pretty vague and subject to interpretation, welcome to the murky realm of recalls! Worth noting: The petitioner must also “believe the charge or charges to be true and have knowledge of the alleged facts upon which the stated grounds for recall are based.” They may not need a smoking gun, but conspiracy theories won’t fly.

If the court allows the petition to proceed, recall backers must collect enough signatures (a number determined by the total amount of votes for that office in the preceding election) for it to reach ballots. A successful recall results in the removal of the elected official, and the district appoints someone to fill that spot.

If the recall effort fails, the elected official remains in their post.

So who is really behind the campaign to recall Sawant, anyway?

In June of 2020, Durkan wrote a letter to Seattle City Council president M. Lorena González (who, incidentally, is now running for Durkan’s job) asking her to investigate Sawant. The allegations in Durkan’s note more or less ended up in the recall petition filed by Seattle resident Ernest Lou. Since that time, the “Recall Sawant” campaign has raised $637,509 in contributions from 4,751 donors, including real estate tycoon Martin Selig, as of September 27. Nearly 7,500 contributors have backed the opposing Kshama Solidarity Campaign, for a total of $687,246. 

If Sawant supporters are against the recall, why were they gathering signatures for it?

This was when things got really confusing. For a time this summer, Kshama Solidarity Campaign essentially volunteered to do Recall Sawant’s work for it. The idea was to ensure that the recall question made it onto the general election ballot in November, when more people are apt to vote than in, say, a special winter election. (Sawant supporters felt that a higher turnout would benefit their cause.) One problem: Per the South Seattle Emerald, only the petitioner can decide whether to merge batches of signatures in King County. So Recall Sawant could still dictate when it handed them over.

How many signatures did Recall Sawant end up collecting?

The campaign needed to gather 10,687 signatures to get the recall question on the ballot. More than 16,000 were submitted. But King County Elections checks to make sure that petition signers are registered to vote in the district and that their signatures match the ones on their registration files. After completing that tedious process, King County Elections verified more than 11,000 signatures from District 3 voters.

Why isn’t the recall question on the November ballot?

Recall Sawant didn’t submit signatures until a few weeks ago. The recall election must be held 45 to 90 days after the aforementioned certification process is finished. So, November 2 wasn’t an option, and February's special election was too far in the future. King County Elections opted for Tuesday, December 7, 2021. “We looked at dates that would reduce overlap between elections for our voters and sought to avoid the busy December holiday season as much as possible,” King County Elections director Julie Wise said in a statement. “There’s no perfect date to schedule an election, but our hope is that voters will show up, turn out, and use their voice in this election just like any other.”

Who can vote in the recall election?

Only District 3 voters. Not sure what district you’re in? Search your address here.

This is getting a lot of attention, but do politicians around here ever actually get recalled?

It’s rare that a recall attempt even makes it this far. See: recent efforts to remove Durkan and Washington governor Jay Inslee.

Halei Watkins of King County Elections did some digging, and the last time Seattle voted on a recall was in 1975. Mayor Wes Uhlman remained in office after receiving more than 60 percent of the vote. 

But it has happened in our backyard. Most recently, Black Diamond City Council member Patricia Pepper was recalled in 2018. Pacific mayor Cy Sun was removed in 2012. And, as we all remember, a Southwest Suburban Sewer District commissioner was once unseated.

What would happen if Sawant got recalled?

Seattle City Council would appoint a replacement, who would serve until an election in November of 2022. The winner of that contest would serve the last year (2023) of Sawant’s term.

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