State Legislative Term Limits


Although proponents have many reasons for supporting term limits, opponents also have compelling reasons for not supporting their implementation in the state legislature. In addition, research by political scientists has uncovered a number of negative consequences since term limits took effect.

Although proponents argued that term limits would increase legislative diversity, research comparing the rate of female and minority representation in term-limited and non-term-limited states does not bear out this expectation. There is no statistically significant difference in diversity between the two groups of states.Stanley Caress and Todd Kunioka. 2012. Term Limits and Their Consequences: The Aftermath of Legislative Reform. New York: State University of New York Press. Although term limits may have produced more open seats, additional barriers to holding office can still exist and affect the willingness of women and minorities to run for office. In addition, women and minorities are subject to the same term limits as men, and given their low numbers among candidates for office, on balance a legislature can lose more women or minorities than it gains.

Term limits also affect the power structure between the legislative and executive branches and the key sources from whom legislators draw information about bills before the chamber. Research demonstrates that, post-term limits, legislators became more likely to consult with lobbyists to gain information about legislation under consideration than had been the case before term limits.Lyke Thompson, Charles Elder, and Richard Elling. 2004. Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. This is likely the result of legislators having less policy expertise and political experience as a function of having fewer years in office, being younger when they first enter legislative service, reducing institutional memory and expertise within the chamber as a whole due to member turnover, or all the above. Interest groups may thus enjoy greater ability to set the agenda and push for policy that favors their organization. This same research also found that under term limits state legislators feel they have lost power relative to the governor and to various bureaucratic agency officials.See note above. This presumed loss of power could damage the state legislature’s ability to adequately check the actions of the executive branch and to perform legislative functions, such as oversight.

Finally, term limits could affect voter enthusiasm and turnout if voters are disappointed they cannot retain legislators they like or have developed a positive relationship with. Once term limits take effect, all legislators are at the voters’ mercy, regardless of the skill or talent they may bring to the office.