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Term limit idea riding wave of anger

By Staff | Mar 5, 2010

The wave of anti-government anger sweeping the nation has spawned a petition in North Dakota to amend the state constitution to limit the terms of legislators and elected state officials to two 4-year terms. Petitioners are now at work getting the 26,000 signatures by August to get their measure on the fall ballot.

Of course, we already have term limits. At the end of every four years, legislators and elected state officials face the end of their terms. Unless they persuade the voters otherwise, they get pink slips and someone else gets their job. Their terms are up.

Adding term-limits to the election cycle is an indictment of the electorate, suggesting that voters aren’t qualified to know when they’ve had enough and need protection from their own ignorance. As the campaign for term limits unfolds, perhaps the initiators will explain in detail how the present system of periodic elections is failing the democratic process.

From the electronic media, we find that the petitioners feel accountability is lacking when incumbents keep getting re-elected without answering to the people for their voting records. That is substantially true in North Dakota, at least as far as legislators are concerned.

North Dakota’s small population results in greater intimacy among the people and intimacy despises divisive political controversy. Consequently, candidates for the legislature are judged more on social qualifications than on political issues.

The typical legislator’s campaign card proves the point. The card usually includes several innocuous political positions, all designed to please God without displeasing the devil a balanced budget, low taxes, better roads, more jobs etc. etc. It is obvious that their policy positions are irrelevant to the campaign.

The really important items on the card include such things as member of the Lutheran Church, community development leader, township supervisor, school board member, Lion of the Year, parent of three children and married to one spouse for 35 years, In other words, the list represents a combination of qualities that tells the voter: “You can trust me. I am one of you.”

Imposing term limits would increase competitiveness by creating open races every eight years. However, it would not change the way voters judge candidates. The level of intimacy in the state would still be present so voters would still render their decisions on the social acceptability of candidates rather than on contentious political issues. This would surely frustrate the petitioners who want to force electoral decisions into a more combative environment.

If greater accountability is what the petitioners want, they should be promoting a 1-house legislature. It would eliminate buck-passing between houses, end the closed-door conference committees, and put the legislative process under more intensive media and citizen scrutiny.

Since surveys indicate that North Dakotans have every reason to be content, we can only guess that the petitioners are a group of angry people who are having fun at being angry. For them, the petition drive may be nothing more than an opportunity to vent their spleen at someone for something, but they’re not sure what.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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