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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

May 26, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Wisconsin recall election exacting a high social toll

On June 5 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker might become the third U.S. governor to be recalled – ever. Whatever happens to him electorally, the social impact of the recall is straining relationships in this Midwest state.

Madison Labor Protest Feb. 26

Homemade signs with strong messages are common among demonstrators (Photo by Emily Mills via Flickr)

MADISON, Wisc. – The stories are everywhere we turn: friends are becoming frenemies as the gubernatorial recall election in this state cascades toward its June 5 decision.

Here’s the numbers: In a randomly-sampled poll by Marquette University two weeks ago of likely recall-election voters in Wisconsin, there was this question: “Is there anyone you have stopped talking with about politics due to disagreements over the recall elections or Scott Walker?”

A stunning 34% said yes.

In the words of a University of Wisconsin professor, outspoken about his liberal views, he and his spouse have had dinner parties when they set an explicit ground rule of “no politics.” This professor, who asked not to be named, said, “We have kids that play soccer and our social network is pretty broad, but we’ve had parents who’ve asked us to take down our (campaign) signs when their kids come over to our house.”

Maybe that’s why only two U.S. governors have ever been recalled: the social toll is enormous.


Only 19 states allow recall elections for state officials. Wisconsin (obviously) and Washington are both on this list.

There’s only been a handful of governor recall elections in U.S. history, and of those, only two have been successful. The first was in 1921, with Governor Lynn Fraizer from North Dakota being recalled. The second occurred in 2003, when former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Governor Gray Davis in California.

But according to Barry C. Burden, a Political Science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and not the unnamed one), Walker’s recall election is “a little different” from the ones in the past.

Burden said that for Davis in 2003, there was a relatively low voter-turnout rate and he had low approval ratings throughout his term. There were also an additional economic and energy crisis, and overall, Davis was “uninspiring.”

But Walker is different.

Shane Abrahamson says he's careful about bringing up politics with his customers. (Photo by Thor Tolo/UW Election Eye)

“There was reasonable turnout (in 2010), he won by 5 points, and he’s loved among Republicans,” said Burden. More broadly, Walker is fairly well liked generally in Wisconsin: the same Marquette poll of likely voters found 50% approved of the job Walker is doing, compared to only 45% for President Barack Obama.

Burden added: “Recall elections happen mostly on the local level, not so much on state level. And they take a lot of work.”

And at least in this case, inspire a lot of passion.

Brian and Melissa Austin are married and have three children. They are both opposed to Walker and support his recall. Some of their extended family members do not share their view.

When the two decided it would be a valuable life lesson to bring their children to protests against Walker at the State Capitol, Melissa Austin’s parents became upset. There was a family fallout. The couple says they haven’t spoken to her parents since.

“They’re totally Fox News watchers who believe everything they report, and they can’t believe we would do such a thing to our three children,” Brian Austin said. “But we stand by what we did. They (our kids) need to know how important it is to stand up for what you believe. It’s a good lesson.”

“It hurts, sure,” said Melissa Austin, “but my husband is right and I very much admire all he’s doing for our unions.”

This is an issue seen outside of families as well. Shane Abrahamson works at a pizza shop in Milwaukee as a deliveryman and says he’s careful about bringing up topics of state politics.

“I see a (Walker) sign in the yard, I don’t even open my mouth,” he said. Smiling, he said, “It just ain’t worth it. With my regular customers, I know who to say something to, and who not to.”

Brian and Melissa Austin

Brian and Melissa Austin were in the documentary film, "We are Wisconsin", in Milwaukee. (Photo by Thor Tolo/UW Election Eye)

But these heated debates can bring some positives, said Burden. Because of the recall election “more voters are involved and knowledgeable,” he said. The Marquette Law School Poll found that 85% of Wisconsin likely voters are “absolutely sure” they’ll vote in the recall election Tuesday.

They’re going to vote for sure, but they may not like each other in doing so.

Which brings us back to that unnamed UW-Madison professor. His wife is also a professor, and she told a story of a yard sign she built from spare wood last year. She painted a sign about the size of a small dining room table. Her candidate lost, and afterward she took down the sign and put it in her garage.

A few months later a boy on the street knocked on her door. As part of a church project, the boy was going house to house asking people if they would give him an object — any object — physically larger than one from a previous household. It was part of building relationships and participating in the act of giving.

The woman said she had specifically in mind an object to trade, but there was one condition: the boy had to take the object to the house of a neighbor who held a very different political outlook. And then she brought out the sign, and off it went to the neighbor.

She doesn’t know how it was received because the neighbors have yet to speak since. It’s not uncommon these days around these parts.

Contributions by: Thor Tolo

Comments | More in National | Topics: Recall election, Scott Walker recall, Wisconsin recall election


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