The limits of power

Legislative term limits have found a new following in North Dakota.

Term limits used to be one of the go-to issues in the conservative playbook. Thirty-seven states now restrict a governor’s time in office. But the movement for legislative term limits peaked in 2000 with 21 states on board, losing ground ever since. Over the years, six states have actually rescinded automatic retirement for lawmakers through the courts or legislative action, leaving just fifteen states with legislative term limits on the books — until now.

On November 8, it wasn’t even close when North Dakota became the first state in two decades to approve limiting how many terms state legislators, as well as the governor, may remain on the job by adding an article to the state constitution. By a roughly 2-to-1 margin, North Dakotans voted to restrict lawmakers to eight total years in both the state house and senate, in addition to prohibiting a governor from serving more than two four-year terms.

In fact, the biggest battle wasn’t convincing a majority of residents to support the constitutional amendment, but rather securing Measure 1 on the ballot in the first place. Questions were raised about the citizen initiative process used to collect the required 31,164 signatures to qualify for the election. North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger rejected 29,000 of 46,000 submitted signatures due to concerns over some signatures and other suspected irregularities. But in September, the North Dakota State Supreme Court unanimously ruled Measure 1 should go before the electorate.

Term limits organizers portrayed the grassroots campaign as David versus Goliath, despite receiving about $900,000 in outside funding from the Washington, D.C. advocacy group U.S. Term Limits. A Bismarck Tribune analysis found that nearly half of legislators — 66 of 141 — had been in office more than eight years with 28 of them serving 20 years or more.

The constitutional amendment that took effect on January 1 turns the clock back on lawmakers who’ve previously served, stipulating all state representatives and senators will start from scratch. Supporters insist term limits will shake up the political establishment and bring state government closer to the people by bringing fresh faces to the table at the state capitol.

“This is a huge win for the everyday people of North Dakota,” said Jared Hendrix, chair of North Dakota for Term Limits in a statement. “Voters are smart when it comes to term limits, because common sense tells us that no one needs endless decades in government to make a difference. They innately understand the status quo is lopsided in favor of the political class. Term limits might be inconvenient for the lobbyists and political class, but they will just have to adjust.”

A powerful coalition of businesses led by the Greater North Dakota Chamber, lobbyists and elected officials from both parties, however, opposed the measure on the grounds it was a solution in search of a problem. They pointed out that some 70 percent of state legislators have stepped down or been voted out of office in the last decade.

“GNDC believes that term limits already exist – they are called elections,” GNDC spokesman Amanda Remynse told American Experiment. “Poor actors should be called to task by their constituents and their votes have consequences. Term limits constrain democratic ideals, forcing government into election and limiting choice to those selecting their representation.”

Critics also raised concerns about the loss of institutional knowledge under term limits and potential impact on the quality of policy and legislation. But the measure’s opponents didn’t ramp up until well after the state high court’s September surprise.

“This measure was approved for the ballot by the ND Supreme Court late in the game after disputes of questionable signature collection,” Remynse said. “Additionally, GNDC needed marching orders from our Board of Directors — business leaders across the state.”

The practical impact of term limits on legislation is hard to quantify. Yet some warn there’s a danger the departure of veteran legislators could, in practice, lead inexperienced legislators to rely more on lobbyists and experts with deeper knowledge of the issues and process. Thus, instead of bringing government closer to the people, term limits may strengthen the hand of lobbyists, particularly in a state where its biennial legislature meets just four times in an eight-year term.

But what about the turnover rate in the other 15 states with term limits for lawmakers? In 2022, 86 state senators and 166 state representatives were no longer eligible for office due to term limits — a total of 252 members, according to Ballotpedia.

There’s probably a ceiling, however, on how many more states will turn to term limits down the line. All but two of the 21 states that have approved term limits at some point have done so through citizen initiative. That process allows citizens to bypass the legislature, putting proposed constitutional amendments or laws directly before voters. Yet only 24 states have the citizen initiative process on the books, most of which have already addressed the issue one way or another.

Nevertheless, term limits for North Dakota state lawmakers and the governor appear to be set in stone. Measure 1 specifically prohibits the state legislature from amending or repealing the amendment.