The First Recall Election

Introductory Note: The recent adoption of the “Juneteenth” Holiday commemorating the end of slavery is something that caught me a bit by surprise and I had already written about this other topic. The next post of mine will thus be about the far more controversial adoption of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in 1983.

There has been a grand total of three governors who underwent recall votes, and of these two lost their recalls and one survived. California Governor Gavin Newsom will be the fourth to face such a vote largely due to his personal hypocrisy on COVID-19 restrictions, but he is expected to prevail. Given that this year is the 100th anniversary of the first recall election and that there is a recall election happening this year, I thought that it would be a good time to write about it. 

The Progressive Era introduced, among other things to American politics, the following laws to more direct democracy: initiative, referendum, and recall. California notably adopted all three in 1911, and in 1919 North Dakota under Governor Lynn J. Frazier (1874-1947) made recall law, which enabled voters to vote out elected officials during their terms. Little did he know that this law would produce unintended consequences for him. Before we proceed, some further background is necessary.

In 1915, former Socialist Party organizer Arthur C. Townley founded the Non-Partisan League (NPL), which stood for state ownership of certain businesses to free North Dakota farmers from the grasps of major businesses headquartered in Minneapolis and Chicago. Rather than fight as a political party, they acted as the progressive wing of the state’s Republican Party, which was dominant in North Dakota. This strategy proved tremendously successful, with the NPL having some immediate success in 1916 with the election of Lynn J. Frazier as governor with 79% of the vote and in 1917 with the special election of John M. Baer to Congress. Frazier was an appealing figure to many North Dakotans because he didn’t look or talk like a politician: he was balding, pudgy, plain-spoken, and didn’t smoke, drink, or dance. Yet, his agenda in some ways was radical. The Republican old guard was alarmed by such developments and they formed their own group, the Independent Voters Association (IVA) in 1918. That year, Frazier won reelection with just under 60% of the vote and the NPL faction gained control of the state legislature and began passing progressive and even some socialist legislation. The progressive legislation included the adoption of a state income tax and an inheritance tax. The socialist legislation was the establishment of the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, the Bank of North Dakota, and a public railroad.

Lynn Joseph Frazier (1874-1947) - Find A Grave Memorial
Lynn J. Frazier

The Recall

In 1920, however, progressivism was on the decline with a depression underway and widespread disillusionment with President Woodrow Wilson. The NPL saw the backlash from this in the form of Frazier winning reelection by only 51% of the vote and Baer losing reelection to the considerably more conservative Republican Olger B. Burtness. Most consequentially for Frazier was that control of the state legislature went to the IVA, which investigated the state-owned companies and uncovered some scandalous material. They discovered shoddy management practices at the Bank of North Dakota, an excessive salary for its head, and that a manager of a small government owned mill had concealed losses through cooking the books. The economy of North Dakota was also hit especially hard by the depression, and Frazier and the NPL were increasingly blamed for continuing economic problems. The state auditor was so critical of Frazier as to call for him to be deported to Russia, “where the anarchists belong” (Wetzel). Accusations also abounded that the public library system was permitting books that promoted free love and downplayed the importance of marriage. One legislator denounced a book that was going through the public library system as “the foulest socialist, anarchistic and free love rot which has ever found a place on a printed page” (Wetzel). That year, the IVA initiated a recall and selected Ragnvald A. Nestos as their nominee and ran on a platform of opposition to the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator. On October 28th, Frazier lost the recall, getting 49% of the vote, losing by about 4,000 votes.

The Winner: Ragnvald A. Nestos

The Aftermath – Success for Nestos, Frazier, and the NPL, Retention of State-Run Businesses

Despite the IVA running a platform against government ownership, the administration of Nestos, instead of ending government ownership, reinvigorated and reformed the operation of these institutions. Nestos was reelected in 1922 with about 57% of the vote.  It was also far from the end for the political career of Lynn J. Frazier, who defeated the more conservative and internationalist incumbent Senator Porter J. McCumber, the only Republican who voted for the Versailles Treaty without amendments, in the 1922 primary and easily won election to the Senate. He would remain in office as a progressive and non-interventionist Republican who supported a national referendum requirement for non-defensive war.

The NPL faction would dominate the state’s Republican Party during the Roosevelt years, with Frazier, Gerald P. Nye, William Langer, William Lemke, and Usher L. Burdick being elected to federal office. In 1940, Frazier would be defeated for renomination by Langer, one of his old rivals in the GOP. In 1956, the NPL, no longer viewing foreign affairs as an irreconcilable difference between them and the Democrats, split from the Republican Party and merged with the Democratic Party. This change was best symbolized with Republican Usher Burdick’s retirement in 1959 and his son, Quentin Burdick, who had led the NPL away from the Republicans, being elected to succeed him as a Democrat. The younger Burdick would have a long career as a senator from 1960 until his death in 1992. To this day, the official name for the Democratic Party in the state is the North Dakota Democratic-Non-Partisan League Party. To this day, despite Republicans holding the governorship since 1992, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota remain the only state-run businesses of their kind in the United States. 


Exhibits – North Dakota Governors – Lynn J. Frazier. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

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Frazier, Lynn (1874-1947). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.

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Hylton, J.G. Who Was Gov. Lynn Joseph Frazier? Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.

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Wetzel, D. (2003, August 8). North Dakota Recalled Governor 82 Years Ago in 1921, Lynn Frazier’s Popularity Fell with the State’s Economic Fortunes. The Associated Press.

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