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Research / Discovery

The limits of Colorado's term limits

July 20, 2010
By Melinda Swenson

The implementation of term limits in Colorado is having some unforeseen consequences, including more ideological polarization in our state house and senate; the loss of history, continuity and insight as incumbents are forced out; and a decline in the number of Republican women in Senate seats.

Ah, the complexities of politics! President John Adams said, “Politics are a labyrinth without a clue.”

If you’re a conscientious voter, you’ve probably spent many evenings during voting season poring over ballot information books and sifting through political language trying to understand the issues and what candidates really stand for.

The sway factor of political rhetoric

Colorado State University Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtenay Daum said that at voting time, many of us allow persuasive political rhetoric to define issues for us. 

It’s not really our fault — many of us have no way of knowing what’s behind political talk that’s been carefully crafted to have a desired effect.

Campaigns for term limits effective

A good example of political speech that accomplished its objective, Daum said, can be seen in the passage of term-limit referendums in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The measures passed because of the compelling language surrounding the campaigns.

‘Citizen legislators wanted’

“The slogan, 'Citizen Legislators, Not Career Politicians,' was effectively used in many of the term limit campaigns going on across the country to convince voters that they needed to shake loose of career legislators,” Daum said.

Courtenay Daum, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at CSU specializing in public law and the study of gender and politics.

“Term-limit legislation was meant to address incumbency advantage, in which sitting legislators benefit from name recognition, fundraising advantages, the perks of the office, etc., when running for re-election.”

Term limits would force these perennial politicians out of office and create opportunities for those who came out of grassroots candidacies to run for and win vacated senate and house seats — thereby increasing opportunities to hear the public voice.

The priorities of the people

"There's a compelling case to be made for a citizen legislature that goes beyond simply getting rid of incumbents for the sake of getting rid of incumbents," Daum said. "Many individuals think that long-term legislators become captive to the institutions in which they serve and lose touch with the priorities of the people/voters and/or become captive to special interests.

"So, part of the push for term limits is based on a desire to create a citizen legislature where representatives will never become captured by the institution because they'll be in and out too quickly and if you are not captive to the institution (or special interests), you are hopefully responsive to the people who put you there."

Term limits: What happened in Colorado?

In Colorado, term limits were initiated in 1991 after voters were persuaded that such measures were a good thing. In 1998, the first group of legislators was forced out of office.

Daum has completed an extensive study of the outcomes of term limits in Colorado — in particular, their effect on female candidates and politicians.

Her research is detailed in, State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-first Century, a volume she edited with fellow Colorado State faculty members John Straayer and Robert Duffy, due out January 2011 [Publisher, University Press of Colorado].

Things unforeseen

Daum says that several things have happened as a result of term limits that weren’t foreseen:

  1. As incumbents are forced out, our legislative bodies are losing some of the continuity, wisdom, and context that more experienced politicians are able to offer.
  2. Term limits have resulted in politicians (both Democratic and Republican) who are more ideologically polarized. That is because more liberal and more conservative voters are typically the ones who are participating in the caucuses and primaries in which new candidates are being voted on.
  3. Political scientists initially expected that term limits would be advantageous to female candidates by reducing the benefits associated with male incumbency and enhancing electoral opportunities for women. The overall number of female legislators, however, has not increased.

Female representatives

Daum discovered that term limits have had an uneven impact on male and female candidates and politicians:

  1. In the years prior to term limits women were well represented in the Colorado state house and senate. Now many women incumbents who leave office at the end of their term limits are being replaced by males.
  2. This is especially true for Republican incumbents. Interestingly, every Republican female senator term-limited out of office was replaced by a male.

Gender imbalances

Daum concludes that term limits will likely have the unanticipated outcome of creating gender imbalances, not only in the state house and senate, but in statewide or national offices.

“The decrease in Republican female senators puts fewer Republican women in the pipeline to compete for higher offices in the years to come.”

Value of women in political office

Daum feels that because of term limits, we are losing ground in terms of the symbolic and substantive representation of women in office.

“It’s important to have a diverse legislature, so girls in this country will say, 'Look, there are women in these types of careers and women having a voice in the political arena.'

“The fact that term limits have not contributed to an increase in the overall number of women serving in the Colorado legislature may have implications for policy outcomes,” Daum said.

Loss of a different perspective

“Compared to their male counterparts, women bring different perspectives to legislative processes and prioritize different policy issues including children, family, social welfare issues, and women's issues and rights.

“It’s been shown that women are different actors and different leaders in legislative bodies.

“As committee chairs, they generally spend less time talking and more time listening to those giving testimony. It’s also known that males behave differently as women reach a sort of critical mass in terms of their presence in a legislative body. Men are often seen to re-evaluate their points of view as a result.

“Any decrease in the number of women changes the nature of the dialogue and the legislative process,” Daum said.

Contact: Courtenay Daum