MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota doesn't have term limits.
From the governor to state lawmakers, voters are free to keep choosing the same candidates over and over again if they want, and they often do, but it seems a national group may be angling to change that.
I've heard from multiple sources that U.S. Term Limits, a conservative nonprofit group based in Washington D.C., has been reaching out to marketing firms in North Dakota looking for bids on a ballot measure campaign. I'm told that the campaign would be for this election cycle, with the issue to be placed on a statewide ballot next year. More likely the November general election ballot than the June primary ballot.
What I'm told by someone who has seen a draft of the proposal is that the measure would only apply to the governor and the legislature. Other statewide offices, like Secretary of State or Attorney General, would be left out.
The term limit would be for eight years. If you serve eight years in the state House, you would still be eligible to serve another eight years in the Senate. The eight years is also a cap. If a lawmaker were to be appointed to finish the last two years of a term, and then get elected to another term, they couldn't then run for a fourth term as that would put them over the eight-year limit.
The measure also prohibits the Legislature from initiating a constitutional amendment to change any of this language which, if approved, I have to think is something the courts would take issue with.
How can you pass a law that prohibits the legislature from legislating?
U.S. Term Limits didn't immediately provide a comment on this news in response to telephone or email inquiries.
It's long been rumored that North Dakota Voters First, a local front-group mostly funded by the left-wing organization Represent.us, might pursue a term limits ballot measure. Those rumors are likely based on the fact that NDVF paid for some public polling asking about term limits, among other topics, not so long ago.
It seems unlikely that NDVF and U.S. Term Limits, which occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, would team-up. Rick Gion, NDVF's executive director, said his group is focused on redistricting and isn't considering a ballot measure campaign at this time.
Will this make the ballot, if a campaign is started? North Dakota's initiated measure laws make it so that any group with enough money can essentially buy its way onto the ballot. Based on past campaigns, the going rate to collect the signatures to put an issue on the ballot is in the ballpark of $250,000.
Any group that can pony up that cash can put their issue on the ballot.
Should North Dakota have term limits?
It's a popular concept in certain populist-leaning political circles, but it's always seemed tinged with hypocrisy, to my mind.
How can you support term limits if you also believe in concepts like "the consent of the governed" and "the will of the people?"
North Dakota has some very long-serving elected officials. Secretary of State Al Jaeger, a Republican, was first elected to his office the same year Bill Clinton was elected to his first term, though his office wouldn't be impacted by this measure.
Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Republican lawmaker from Grand Forks, has served in the state legislature for 44 years, making him tied for the longest-tenured state elected official in the country.
Is that a bad thing?
The truth is, voters can implement term limits any time they like.
Every election offers an opportunity to replace the people in office with new personnel, and if election day is too long to wait, they can always gather the signatures necessary to recall an elected official. And even before election day, the political parties have a primary process through which the party's candidates can be replaced as well.
If those processes keep many of the same people in office, one cycle after another, isn't that just the will of the people?
I think so.
There are some North Dakota-specific challenges, too. Term limits for legislative offices, for instance, would require us to turn over the people in office every eight years. We're going to have some real issues with candidate recruitment, particularly in the more rural parts of our state, given the available pools of people who are both willing and competent enough to serve.
Also, when we curtail the amount of time an elected official can spend in office, don't we cede a lot of power to the far more permanent bureaucracy which never has to be on a ballot?
Your thoughts on these questions may be different from mine, but regardless, we're almost certainly going to be having this debate in earnest next year.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.