Kshama Sawant: Why I Signed the Petition for My Own Recall

Since the moment that socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the Seattle City Council, the rich, the Right, and the Democratic establishment have tried to destroy her. Having failed to defeat her at the ballot box, Sawant explains in Jacobin, they’re now resorting to voter suppression.

Seattle City councilmember Kshama Sawant addresses supporters during her inauguration and "Tax Amazon 2020 Kickoff" event in Seattle, Washington on January 13, 2020. (Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images)

In response to last year’s historic Black Lives Matter uprising, with 20 million taking to the streets, the ruling class and right wing responded with 81 bills criminalizing peaceful protest in front of 34 state legislatures and over 250 voter suppression laws in 43 states, both offensives initiated by the Republicans but with no effective resistance from the Democrats. Now, both voter suppression and the attack on the right to protest have arrived squarely in liberal Seattle in the form of the right-wing Recall campaign against my socialist council office.

The Recall campaign is using massive voter suppression via a low-turnout winter special election, and the unelected state supreme court’s stamp of approval on the ballot itself, in an attempt to construct the most undemocratic election possible.

If the Recall succeeds, it will set a new and deeply dangerous precedent: when the ruling class fails to unseat left elected representatives through “normal” means like flooding races with corporate cash, or neutralize them through cooptation, they can resort to extraordinary measures like this recall. We see the same phenomenon at play in Buffalo, New York, where the City Council equivalent is threatening to abolish the position of mayor just one month after democratic socialist India Walton won the Democratic mayoral primary.

We have to fight back against both of these related attacks with the full strength of our movement.

Why Big Business and the Right Want Me Out

Since I was first elected to city council as an open socialist and Marxist in 2013, we have used our seat as a tool for Seattle’s working class in its fight against big business, racism, and the political establishment. In just eight years, our office has helped lead movements that won the first $15 minimum wage in a major US city, the $250 million/year Amazon Tax to fund affordable housing and a Green New Deal, many crucial and first-in-the-country renters’ rights victories, the nation’s first ban on chemical weapons by the police (before the Democrats rolled back many of the strongest provisions), and more.

It is precisely because our socialist council office has been so effective at winning victories for ordinary people, and because the ruling class simply cannot beat us in normal democratic elections, that we are now facing a right-wing recall effort based around trumped-up charges against my role in the Black Lives Matter and Tax Amazon movements.

Over 130 Trump donors have donated to the Recall campaign, alongside over 500 Republican donors, more than 100 CEOs and corporate executives (locally and nationally), and three out of five billionaire dynasties in the state of Washington. Who is the Recall’s top lawyer? John McKay, former US Attorney appointed by George W. Bush.

This anti–Black Lives Matter, anti-socialist campaign represents a teaming up of big business, the right wing, and the Democratic establishment against our movement. While local progressive Democrats like US representative Pramila Jayapal and others on the city council have not come out explicitly in favor of the Recall, their nearly year-long silence since the Recall effort began unfortunately speaks volumes. It’s time for them to pick a side.

Voter Suppression in Liberal Seattle

I won election in 2013, reelection in 2015, and yet again in 2019. Besides the socialist movement beating big business and the political establishment against all odds, what did all of these elections have in common? They were all in November, and had extremely high turnouts in neighborhoods with the highest concentration of people of color, young people, and renters.

The same forces we’ve defeated three times in general elections have finally learned that lying about my record and attacking my character as “too aggressive” and unable to “well with others” (other establishment politicians, that is) just isn’t enough. The Recall campaign has done the calculations and figured out that their only path to victory lies through suppressing voter turnout among these exact demographics.

Both historically and today, voter suppression laws are never called “The Voter Suppression Act.” None of them say “black people can’t vote” or “poor people can’t vote.” But they suppress the vote nonetheless, and disenfranchise the most oppressed voters in a variety of indirect ways while attempting to seem innocuous.

To get the Recall on the ballot, they need to collect just 10,700 signatures. With a month left to go before the August 3 deadline to turn in their signatures for a November general election, the Recall announced they had over 9,000 officially pre-verified signatures, and that they were aiming for November but just weren’t sure if they could get there.

Despite their pace up to that point being just under 1,000 per week (given their expensive mail operation to the wealthy parts of the district), we predicted they were planning to intentionally slow down signature collection and, come August 3, cynically pretend they just didn’t have enough to submit.

Why? Because in King County, where Seattle is located, as recently as 2016 and 2018, special elections have had up to 40 percent and 50 percent lower turnout than general elections.

So our movement went on the offensive, exposing the Recall’s primary strategy for what it is: voter suppression.

The only reason the Recall campaign was even in a position to bypass the general election was because the Washington State Supreme Court inexplicably delayed ruling on our case for nearly three months after their own ruling date, which was set for early January. Had they ruled even ten days earlier, a special election may have been off the table altogether.

Signing the Petition for My Own Recall

At a press conference on July 9, I became perhaps the first politician to ever sign a petition for their own recall, and the Kshama Solidarity Campaign announced it would begin collecting thousands of signatures for the Recall with the message of “put up or shut up.” We said at the press conference, “You say you want to turn in your signatures and get on the ballot in November? Then do it. The Solidarity Campaign will collect the rest.” Of course, we only collected signatures from our supporters who opposed the Recall Campaign and wanted to sign as a way to fight its voter suppression.

Our campaign caught fire. Our volunteer turnout to canvassing increased eight-fold, with 764 two-hour canvassing shifts in the three weeks between July 9 and August 1. We held a Solidarity Campaign labor rally with over 100 union members in attendance followed by a canvassing shift, and Seattle DSA organized a rally and fundraiser with Jacobin writer Meagan Day and former Bernie 2020 press secretary Briahna Joy Gray.

We knew this approach would be a win-win for us. Either we would force the Recall to turn in the signatures by August 3, which would mean a high-turnout November election, or we would make it clear for all to see what our opponents’ aim was the whole time: avoid a general election and intentionally suppress the vote.

We delivered our rapidly growing stack of signatures to the Recall campaign every two days via a legal courier, just as they requested in the furious emails we received from their lawyer. At 2,000 signatures, we held a press conference outside the lawyer’s office, and at 3,000, the day before the August 3 deadline, held a rally outside his office that we called “Put Up or Shut Up.”

Despite clearly having enough signatures to submit for a November election, the Recall held on to their signatures and refused to turn them in. Now, our plan is to build the strongest Get Out the Vote effort Seattle has ever seen. The only way to stop right-wing attacks like voter suppression is to build a movement to fight back — so that’s exactly what we plan to do.

Elections and the Socialist Movement

We have used our Marxist city council seat to win historic victories for working people, which is why the Right, big business, and the Democratic establishment are coming after us. Because the ruling class doesn’t care how many times we have won democratic elections (despite Amazon spending $1.5 million in the 2019 city elections), they want us out, and are now using voter suppression to try to make it happen.

As Marxists, we use the capitalist electoral system to win concrete victories for the working class, popularize and build the socialist movement, and expose in real time the limits of the fundamentally undemocratic electoral system we are using. Ultimately, we know we can’t win a socialist transformation of society through the capitalist electoral system because it’s not our system; in fact, it’s designed specifically to prevent systemic change.

When our movement becomes too much of a threat to the status quo, the ruling class has no qualms about taking extraordinary measures, as we see with this undemocratic Recall and many more severe examples throughout history. This was what gave rise to McCarthyism and the “red scare” after World War II. Today, as the socialist movement grows more powerful and becomes better organized, the danger of a twenty-first century McCarthyism will increasingly be posed. This Recall campaign should be a warning to our entire movement.

Big business and the right wing want to make an example out of us, to show that Marxist politics will not be tolerated. But we cannot let them. Throughout the month of August, we are doing a donations drive to cancel out the Recall’s Trump and CEO dark money. Our movement must defend itself with everything we’ve got. We hope progressives and socialists across the country will join us.