This has been an eventful month for term limit activists in North Dakota. Their potential constitutional measure is gaining momentum, although it remains to be seen if it will appear on our ballots.
The petition’s sponsors refer to themselves as Term Limits for North Dakota. Weeks ago, the group received the state’s approval to try to collect the 31,164 signatures needed to place the measure on our 2022 ballots. If successful, the measure would amend our state constitution with a new article requiring term limits for governor, state senators and state representatives. Two four-year terms would be the limit placed on all three political offices; no other elected positions in state government would be impacted. The amendment would also prohibit the Legislature from eliminating the term limits, meaning that only another citizen-initiated measure could walk back the term limits. It’s interesting that the sponsors developed an entirely new constitutional article, because these term limits could be imposed by amending existing Articles IV-V (see legis.nd.gov/constitution).
Such finer details of any term limits proposal are key. Term limits may shape the governor’s office and the Legislature differently. Further, differences in term limits and length may be useful for different branches of state government. Serving as a state lawmaker is quite different from serving as governor, so it’s worth considering whether these positions should have the same limits (or limits at all). It’s also worth wondering whether the governor and state legislators should have term limits if our attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, superintendent and statewide commissioners do not.
Opinions in our community vary. Many North Dakotans show interest in term limits, but others are skeptical of the claim that term limits improve governance. Those who favor term limits for at least some elected positions often disagree on which offices should be subject to the limits and how many terms should be allowed. It is important to point out, however, that these disagreements show that a meaningful debate is emerging in our state. The debate itself should be embraced and disagreements should be explored rather than silenced. All sides of the debate have arguments that are genuinely worthy of consideration.
The term limits debate in North Dakota is fundamentally about our own self-governance. Our state’s initiated measure process exists so that we can put self-governance decisions like this one to a vote of the people. The debate -- and possible 2022 vote -- on term limits can offer us a refreshing break from the “culture war” and place our focus on actual governance. What do we want to see from our governors? What do we want to see from our legislators, commissioners and other leaders? Given your answers to those questions, are time limits on political power helpful, or do such limits hamper expertise? These are the questions that we must grapple with.
Altogether, the term limit debate illustrates why the state’s initiated measure process is so important. North Dakotans should always retain the power to create, reject, or modify term limits within our own government. Such decisions should never be left entirely to the Legislature, although dialogue about term limits must include voters and legislators alike. The use or rejection of term limits reflects only one of many aspects of governance that North Dakotans should be able to directly impact. Let’s keep protecting our ability to have these debates and decisions at the ballot box.
And whether you love or hate term limits, let’s love that we have the power to decide if/when we use them in our government.
Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her past columns at EllieShockley.com