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How Do I Remove a Representative From Office?

Susan is a professional writer who writes about a wide variety of topics, including gardening and facts about food.

First, let's make it clear that you can't remove a Representative from office just because you disagree with that Representative's policies. It is possible to remove a Representative for corruption or (theoretically) for gross incompetence. It is not possible to remove a Representative for "bad" politics.

A member of the United States House of Representatives may be removed from office using two different methods. The first involves informing the House of Representatives of the member's ethics violations and letting the House proceed with ethics hearings. The second is instigating a recall election.

Both methods are long, difficult processes. In fact, the only sure way to remove a representative from office is to come up with enough votes to elect the representative's opponent in a general election.

Expulsion from Congress

Members of the House of Representatives can be removed from office for ethics violations. If they have been involved in illegal activity or if they have violated the code of conduct outlined in the "House Ethics Manual," their peers in the House can conduct a hearing and censure or expel them. A citizen can initiate an ethics investigation by contacting the Office of Congressional Ethics and providing the required information. The OCE will want a list of the charges you are making, the names and addresses of witnesses and documentation to support your claims. You must also certify that the statements you are making are true and that the evidence you are providing was obtained legally.

The House of Representatives during a joint session

The House of Representatives during a joint session

Ethics Committee Responsibilities

Once you have contacted the OCE, the process of expulsion is out of your hands. Your paperwork will be reviewed by an OCE staff member. If that staff member finds "reasonable basis," the case will go to a preliminary review and then to a second-phase review. If the case is found to have merit, it will go to the House Committee on Ethics and they will begin the process of censuring or expelling the representative. This method of removing a representative is designed to be a fair hearing for both the representative and for the person bringing the charge against the representative. But it is time-consuming, and most of it is conducted behind closed doors and out of view of the citizen bringing the charge.

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States that Allow Recall of U.S. Representatives

  • Colorado
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Recall Election

Another way of removing a representative from office is by holding a recall election. A recall election is a way of replacing a representative before the end of that representative's term of office. If enough people want it, the state holds a special election. The ballot has two parts. The first is the question: "Should Representative X be removed from office?" The second is a series of choices for the Representative's replacement. Nine states have provisions for recall of federal officials. Other states have provisions for recall that may or may not apply to U.S. Representatives. Your state election officials will be able to tell you what the law is in your state.

The grounds for recall differ from state to state. For example, in Montana, a representative can be recalled for violation of oath of office or for lack of physical or mental fitness to do the job. In Washington, a representative can be recalled for the commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office.

In most states, the process for beginning a recall is similar to an initiative process. You begin by contacting your state election officials. They will give you the paperwork you need to file. You then go out and collect signatures on a petition. The exact number of signatures you need and the time you have to get them varies from state to state. If you get enough signatures, the state holds the recall election.

In 2009, Louisiana voters launched a petition drive to recall Rep. Joseph Cao. The attempt to recall him was unsuccessful.

In 2009, Louisiana voters launched a petition drive to recall Rep. Joseph Cao. The attempt to recall him was unsuccessful.

The Problems With Recall

Now that we've broached the possibility of a recall election, let me tell you the unfortunate truth, it's probably not possible (though that hasn't stopped people from trying it).

The right to recall is not guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States or by federal law. In fact, no member of the House of Representatives has ever been recalled. According to the Supreme Court of the United States in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, "representatives owe primary allegiance not to the people of a State, but to the people of the Nation." Consequently, though a state elects a representative, according to the Supreme Court, that state does not have the authority to recall that representative.

In other words, though nine states have provisions for recalling representatives, and though nothing prevents those states from holding recall elections, federal law probably won't allow the citizens of a state to actually replace their representative. At the very least, recalling a Representative would be a long and lawyer-filled process.

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© 2014 Susan Lynn Peterson

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