The Wilson Quarterly

No jurisdiction in America embraced legislative term limits more ardently than Florida, where in 1992 a record 77 percent of voters agreed to a constitu­tional amend­ment that throws the bums out of the state­house after eight ­years.

Long before the first hanging chad ever dangled from the punch hole of a butterfly ballot, the Sunshine State was receiving bad reviews on democratic practice from a number of political scientists. Prior to the ­“one person, ­one ­vote” Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s, for example, Florida was so malappor­tioned that 13 percent of its voters elected a majority of the state legislature. But even after apportionment was modernized, the rate of statehouse turnover remained ­low.

Term limits became the reformers’ dream: They would boost compe­tition, remove the incumbency ad­van­tage and speed up turnover, even improve opportunities for women and minor­ities. Unfortu­nately, ac­cording to political scientists Eric Prier and Kevin Wagner of Florida Atlantic University, things got worse al­most as soon as the term limits kicked ­in.

Term limits in Florida appear to have created what are in effect ­eight-­year terms for incumbents, with little incentive to be con­cerned about aggregate public opinion or voters during the length of the term, the authors say. Instead of running against a sitting legislator, a challenger can just wait out the officeholder’s remaining four years. Competition rose after the first eight-year period, but was not sus­tained. In the 2004 primaries for the Florida House of Repre­sent­atives, not a single opponent ap­peared on the ballot in 71 percent of the races for 120 seats. Many members had no op­po­sition in either the primary or general election. And because candidates with no official chal­lengers are automatically elected without appearing on the ballot, 11 senators took their seats after the election without a single vote cast for or against ­them.

Maine had a similar experi­ence after voters approved term limits in 1993. Before term limits, Maine averaged about 58 unop­posed primary races for its lower legislative house. After term limits, the average in­creased to 127 out of 151 possible ­contests.

Term limits were supposed to draw in a large new group of can­di­­dates to vie for public office and create “a more democratic, open, and active electoral envi­ron­ment populated by citizen legislators.” So far, the authors conclude, that claim has proven “almost entirely false.”

THE SOURCE: “Running Unopposed: Assessing the Impact of Term Limits on Competition in Florida and Maine” by Eric Prier and Kevin Wagner, in Politics and Policy, Feb. ­2009.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Steven Martin

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