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Port: The campaign to bamboozle us into limiting our own voting rights

Term limits don't help voters. They hurt them by limiting their choices at the ballot box.

PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs that falsely claim the petition is about term limits for Congress.
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MINOT, N.D. — A constitutional measure that would limit North Dakota lawmakers, and the governor, to no more than eight years in office, should not be on the November ballot .

Our secretary of state, our attorney general, and a district court judge all found sufficient evidence of signature collection fraud to disqualify the measure. But our state Supreme Court justices — whose terms, ironically enough, will not be limited by this measure — ruled that even despite the evidence of fraud the secretary of state lacked the statutory authority to disqualify the measure.

And ain't that a kick in the shorts?

For better or worse, North Dakotans will vote on the measure, and they'll likely approve it. Term limits, based on every poll on the subject I've seen over the years, is a deeply popular concept among our state's citizens.

I realize that by criticizing term limits I'm spitting into the prevailing political winds, but I'm not one to let that stop me.


That something is politically popular does not make it right.

And term limits aren't right. Not for people who believe in the consent of the governed.

The primary argument for them is that we have too many career politicians, too many people who get too comfortable in elected office, and so we need a law limiting how long they can hold their seats.

"I would never and did not advocate for any sort of end-run shenanigans. I wanted to push to make sure that shenanigans weren't being pushed in either direction," North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said in response to a report that he advocated for recounts in the 2020 election in a message that reached former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Where is the outrage when college coaches see their multi-million dollar salaries subsidized by student loans? Where is the anger when billionaire professional sports team owners reach into taxpayers' wallets to subsidize a new stadium they could afford to build on their own?
This strategy playing nice with lunatics will eventually blow up and start costing Republicans elections.

Except we don't. While there are some examples of long-tenured officeholders in our state, they're the exception and not the rule.

Only two governors in state history have served longer than eight years .

Most of our state's current lawmakers have served eight years or less . The median time served is just eight years. The flow of "fresh blood" into the Legislature is steady. The average turnover rate in legislative races since the 2000 election cycle has been about 15%.

Here's a dose of reality to cut through the miasma of talking points: No official can serve in elected office without the consent of voters. Sometimes we voters have consented to lawmakers and governors serving longer than eight years, but a lot of the time we don't.

That's our choice.


Why should we vote to take this discretion away from ourselves?

There are other factors to consider as well. This ballot measure only implements term limits for governors and our lawmakers. Other members of the executive branch, such as the tax commissioner and the treasurer, will have no such limitations. Also, the state bureaucracy isn't limited in service time.

Our part-time legislative branch of government, which is supposed to be a co-equal check and balance on the powers of the executive and judicial branches, will be weakened by term limits, and into that vacuum will seep more power from the governor's office (again, just two governors in history have served longer than eight years), the state bureaucracy, and other executive branch elected officials.

Former Gov. Ed Schafer opposes term limits proposal
Wed Jul 28 16:18:18 EDT 2021
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer speaks on an episode of the Plain Talk podcast against a proposal implementing term limits. To subscribe to Plain Talk, click here.

If term limits are such a good thing, why not limit every executive branch officeholder? And for conservatives supporting this proposal, are you really eager to give so much more power to state bureaucrats who never have to appear on a ballot?

There are 15 other states with term limits — six states have actually done away with their term limit laws since 1997 — and there's a reason why that number isn't larger.

Term limits skew the checks and balances that are central to the American form of government.

A study commissioned by the National Council of State Legislatures, to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the term limits movement, reached this very conclusion : "The NCSL study showed conclusively that the absence in term-limited legislatures of experienced legislators, especially leaders and key committee chairs, with knowledge of policy issues and legislative procedure weakens the power of the legislative branch in relation to governors."

Term limits are sold by activists as a curative for entrenched and unaccountable political power, but that's false.


They are steroids for entrenched and unaccountable political power.

Part of what's motivating this ballot measure is money. The people behind it are professional political operatives. Campaign chairman Jared Hendrix is a paid political consultant. He's being paid to run the term limits campaign. People like him make money from churn in elected office. They want term limits not because it produces a better sort of government, but because it's job security for them.

But another part of the motivation is a cynical belief that voters are too stupid to decide for themselves when a given elected official has been in office for too long.

If a majority of voters in a legislative district like their Senator, why shouldn't they be allowed to keep electing that person beyond eight years? At any time, they could engage in the political process to toss that person out. They could support a challenger in the primary process, or an opponent on the general election ballot. If the situation warrants it, they can even use our state's process for recalling elected officials to the ballot before their term is up.

We voters already have a robust system of laws and process to govern how long an elected official should be in office, and it's not at all clear, beyond the shallow slogans shouted by term limits supporters, that this process isn't working.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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