Policy Analysis No. 413

Assessing the Term Limits Experiment: California and Beyond

By Patrick Basham
August 31, 2001

Executive Summary

The term limits movement is one of the most successful grassroots political efforts in U.S. history. From 1990 to 1995 legislative term limits passed in 18 states with an average of 68 percent voter support. By the end of 2000 those term limits had affected more than 700 legislative seats. Term limits were intended to end careerism among state legislators. Academic and other research on the effects of term limits suggests that they have substantially attained that goal. Current research supports the following conclusions:

  • Term limits remain popular with state electorates long after their introduction.
  • Term limits stimulate electoral competition in state legislative elections.
  • Term limits enable nontraditional candidates to run for seats in state legislatures. Female, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American candidates find it easier to enter term-limited legislatures than non-term-limited bodies. The record is more mixed for African Americans.
  • Term limits weaken seniority systems in state legislatures.
  • Term limits tend to weaken the leadership of a state legislature.
  • Term limits have not strengthened interest groups, state bureaucracies, or legislative staffs as predicted by critics of term limits.
  • Some evidence suggests that term limits foster public policies compatible with limited government.

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Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.