Case of embattled councilwoman shines spotlight on N.J.’s tough recall law
Jersey City Councilwoman Amy DeGise has faced calls to resign after video showed her not stopping after she hit a cyclist in an intersection. (DeGise photo courtesy of Hudson County View)
Jersey City woman Megan Carolan started researching what it takes to recall elected officials after she saw a video of her councilwoman not stopping after hitting a cyclist with her car.
Carolan launched an online petition calling for Councilwoman Amy DeGise to resign after the video was released, and that has garnered more than 6,200 signatures. But that’s just a sliver of what Carolan would need to collect if she wanted to oust DeGise in a recall election.
“I understand you don’t want a recall to be easy, but this also kind of feels like a move designed to keep incumbents and office holders where they are,” Carolan said in a phone interview.
Thanks to a 1995 law passed through a ballot question and crafted by lawmakers, New Jersey voters face an uphill battle when attempting to recall a politician in the Garden State. Petitioners need to collect signatures totaling 25% of the registered voters who live in the elected official’s district — not, as in most states with recall laws, a percentage of votes cast in the most recent election, usually a much lower number.
A petition to force a recall election for DeGise, a Democrat and first-term at-large councilwoman for the state’s second-largest city, would need 42,523 signatures. About 170,000 people are registered to vote in Jersey City.
Compare that to the turnout of the last election, where 44,920 Jersey City voters, or 28% of registered voters, cast ballots in the 2021 governor’s race.
“It just seems like a really high threshold,” said Carolan, adding, “She’d need just as many recall signatures as people who even showed up to vote.”
If the state’s recall law were based on 25% of Jersey City ballots cast in the 2021 governor’s race, a DeGise recall effort would need about 11,000 signatures, lower if the figures were based on local race tallies.
DeGise won her November 2021 election with 18,386 votes.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow recalls for some elected officials, with varying thresholds. Fourteen states require petitioners to collect signatures equal to a percentage of ballots cast in the last election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Brett Pugach, an election law attorney at Bromberg Law, said he understands the need for a high threshold of signatures if voters are going to take the extraordinary step of removing a public official from office.
“On the other side of it, if you’re going to allow for a recall, it needs to be something that in extenuating circumstances — which may or may not exist here — it’s actually something practical and can actually be achieved,” Pugach said. “Otherwise, it’s not worth anything in practice if it can’t ever be accomplished.”
DeGise is engulfed in backlash after the video revealed she hit a bicyclist on Martin Luther King Drive in Jersey City at around 8 a.m. on July 19 and did not stop after the collision. The video shows the cyclist running a red light.
Two of DeGise’s council colleagues, James Solomon and Frank Gilmore, have called on her to resign.
DeGise has not commented publicly on the matter, citing a pending court case. Jersey City is holding a council meeting Wednesday evening, which will be the first time DeGise faces public comment since the video was released. More than 100 people have signed up to speak during the meeting.
While recalls are rare in New Jersey, plenty of attempts have been made — there is currently a recall attempt against Hoboken Councilman Phil Cohen. A failed effort to recall Gov. Phil Murphy was launched in 2019, and ended on March 3, 2020 after voters failed to collect the required 1.48 million signatures to force a recall election. A second recall effort in September 2020 was rejected by the Division of Elections.
Earlier this month, Christine Dye resigned from her seat on the Cedar Grove Board of Education after a group successfully collected the 2,802 signatures needed to put her recall on the ballot.
Any recall of DeGise, whose father is the Hudson County executive, wouldn’t be able to start until January 2023, since public officials must hold office for one year before a recall attempt can begin. DeGise was sworn in on Jan. 1.
Citizens can recall any elected official, but it has mostly been used to recall school board or municipal officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is often used in California, where 55 governors have been targets of recall elections, most recently a failed recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021. California voters hoping to force a recall election need to collect just 12% of the last vote total for the office they’re targeting.
While New Jersey lawmakers have introduced bills that would lower the signature threshold to force a recall in every session since 2008, none have gone beyond introduction and been heard by committees.
Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer) proposed two bills seeking changes to the recall law in the last legislative session. His bills would have changed the threshold from 25% of total registered voters to 25% of ballots cast and allowed recall efforts to start 90 days before the end of the first year in office.
DeAngelo hasn’t reintroduced the bills in the current two-year session and declined to comment for this article.
Pugach noted the state Constitution requires the 25% and one-year-in-office thresholds, meaning only a constitutional amendment can change them. A constitutional amendment requires New Jersey voters’ approval through a ballot question.
“It’s not the kind of thing that just a simple majority of legislators in the Statehouse are going to be able to overturn,” Pugach said.
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