Assessing the Term Limits Experiment: California and Beyond

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The term limits movement is one of the mostsuccessful grassroots political efforts in U.S. history.From 1990 to 1995 legislative term limitspassed in 18 states with an average of 68 percentvoter support. By the end of 2000 those term limitshad affected more than 700 legislative seats.Term limits were intended to end careerismamong state legislators. Academic and otherresearch on the effects of term limits suggests thatthey have substantially attained that goal. Currentresearch supports the following conclusions:

  • Term limits remain popular with stateelectorates long after their introduction.
  • Term limits stimulate electoral competitionin state legislative elections.
  • Term limits enable nontraditional candidates to run for seats in state legislatures.Female, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Americancandidates find it easier to enterterm-limited legislatures than non-term-limitedbodies. The record is more mixedfor African Americans.
  • Term limits weaken seniority systems instate legislatures.
  • Term limits tend to weaken the leadershipof a state legislature.
  • Term limits have not strengthened interestgroups, state bureaucracies, or legislativestaffs as predicted by critics of termlimits.
  • Some evidence suggests that term limitsfoster public policies compatible with limitedgovernment.

Patrick Basham

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