The History of Recall Elections in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The History of Recall Elections in Wisconsin

The History of Recall Elections in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Article XIII, Sec. 12, of the Wisconsin Constitution provides for recall of state officials. Wisconsin is among 19 states that permit recall elections and, as in most of the other states, no grounds are required. In Wisconsin, any state, judicial, congressional or legislative official can face a recall election if enough signatures are collected.

Legal History

Neither the draft of 1846 nor the final Constitution of 1848 authorized recall elections. In 1907, Progressive Republicans began researching recalls, and in 1914 an amendment went before Wisconsin voters. It would have authorized recall elections for all elected offices except judges. Voters rejected it soundly, 140,344 to 77,876. In 1922 and 1923, Gov. John J. Blainerevived the idea by urging a recall amendment in his State of the State speeches to the legislature. Lawmakers authorized a referendum to amend the constitution and voters approved it on Nov. 2, 1926. The vote was decided by just a 1% margin – 205,868 for the ability to recall officials and 201,125 against it. The 1926 amendment is the basis of today’s recalls, though it was amended in 1981 to authorize primaries when necessary.

Earlier Recalls

The first use of the new amendment came in 1932, when Republican Sen. Otto Mueller of Wausau faced recall after breaking Republican Party lines. His constituents valued him more than his party, however, and he survived easily. Mueller’s was the only recall of a Wisconsin state legislator for 50 years. In 1954 a group called “Joe Must Go” attempted to recall Republican US Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite gaining national attention, the group fell short of the required number of signatures. In 1977, a rash of recalls broke out around Wisconsin. Five La Crosse school board members, as well as judges from Dane and Juneau counties, were all recalled. During the 1980s, various town supervisors, a mayor, and other local officials were also thrown out by voters, including the entire board of the Town of Lawrence in Rusk County. In 1990, Rep. Jim Holperin of Eagle River survived a recall attempt spawned by his support for Indian treaty rights. In 1996, Sen. George Petak of Racine became the first state elected official to be successfully recalled after he cast the deciding vote to raise taxes for Miller Stadium in Milwaukee. In 1997 a pro-life group tried to recall US Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl for their support of the partial-birth abortion medical procedure, but the group fell around 50,000 signatures short. In 2003, Sen. Gary Georgewas recalled after breaking ranks with the Democratic Party on key votes.

In 2011, following passage of Governor Walker’s collective bargaining reforms, recall efforts were launched against six Republican state senators who had supported the new law. Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke were recalled. The following year, the governor, lieutenant governor, and four more Republican state senators were subject to recall elections, with Senator Van H. Wangaard recalled. 

In 2024, the Wisconsin Elections Commission rejected a petition to recall Assembly Speaker Robin Vos due to a lack of signatures.   

Wisconsin Recall Timeline (list current as of June 2024)


1932: Sen. Otto Mueller
1977: Five La Crosse School Board members and judges from Dane and Juneau counties were recalled.

1982: Two Town of Washington (Eau Claire County) officials.
1985: A Town of Onalaska (La Crosse County) supervisor.
1988: The entire board of the Town of Lawrence (Rusk County).
1989: The mayor of Hudson (St. Croix Co.)
1992: Four members of the La Crosse School Board
1996: Sen. George Petak
2000: Margaret Ciccone Mayor of Superior
2002: Multiple elected Milwaukee County officials recalled due to a retirement pension controversy
2003: Sen. Gary George
2011: Senators Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke
2012: Bob Ryan, Mayor of Sheboygan, Wisconsin
2012: State Senator Van H. Wanggaard
2015: 13 Door County Board members
2017: Jake Speed, Onalaska School Board member
2018: Taavi McMahon, Trempealeau County District Attorney
2021: Ronnie Rossberger, Mellen School Board Vice-President


1990: Rep. Jim Holperin
1990: US Congressmen Dave Obey
2011: Senators Robert Cowles, Alberta Darling, Dave Hansen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jim Holperin, Luther Olsen and Robert Wirch
2012: Governor Scott Walker, Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Senators Scott Fitzgerlad, Terry Moulton, and Pam Galloway
2013: La Crosse, Wisconsin Common Council President Audrey Kader
2016: 3 members of the Town of Paris (Kenosha County) Board
2021: Butternut School Board President Gary Mertig
2024: recall petition for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos denied


Schaffner, Margaret A. “The Recall.” Comparative Legislation Bulletin no. 12 (Madison, 1907); Eau Claire Leader, November 14, 1914; Capital Times, January 11, 1923; Laws of Wisconsin 1925, ch. 270; Wisconsin Blue Book, 1927:590, 1981:872-874, 1991-92:874; “Recall of State Officials.” National Conference of State Legislators (at; Mayers, Jeff. “Wisconsin’s Recall Fever.” WI: Wisconsin Interest (Thiensville, Wis., Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) vol. 13, no. 1 (winter 2004): 1-5); Schneider, Christian. “The History of the Recall in Wisconsin” (Thiensville, Wis., Wisconsin Policy Research Institute) vol. 25, no. 3 (winter 2004)

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