Position on Term Limits
I have always had a saying about term limits: “We have always had term limits – they are called elections.” The power vested in the people is absolute in this matter. But, there are modern realties that have changed the landscape of election cycles. Most notably, the power of money and control of media is a new paradigm in politics, primarily because media, more than money, has an unprecedented and penetrating effect on modern life.
While I have struggled philosophically with the question of term limits, I have come down on the side that they are a necessary and valuable election reform in the political process. Term limits are one legal and effective measure, among limited options in the reform of the election process.
A clear influence in political cycles is the effect of money on the outcome of elections and associated influence while in office. Several years ago, I headed a nonprofit think-tank called the “Elections Reform Study Group.” Among the findings, candidates who won a city council race in Jacksonville generally raised and spent about three times the average candidate who was deemed financially viable*. What’s more, if you consider the fund raising of only 1st and 2nd place candidates in a general or terminal race, 1st place winners generally outraised 2nd place by more than twice the fundraising amount. Again, money essentially equals media or message and is highly predictive in the outcome of elections.
Money in elections is a reality and it is necessary. Without media and message, voters will often simply pick the first name on the ballot. In statistical surveying, this is called the “recency of effect” and it is well demonstrated in the Jacksonville Soil Water Conservation elections. These city-wide races never have even close to adequate funding for a “minimum effective level” of media impressions. The result, first name on the ballot almost always wins. Without candidates having adequate campaign funding, legitimate discourse and debate via media cannot occur and selections become random.
Clearly, media and money have influence – good and bad. But this factor is elevated in the case of incumbent elected officials running for subsequent terms of office. Here, someone holding office is raising money for reelection, at the same time they are voting on issues that may be of interest to their contributors. Make no mistake about it, to take campaign money in exchange for the promise of a vote is an illegal act. But there are the realities of bias, even on a subliminal level, that cannot be denied. I believe most elected officials follow these rules and do their best to avoid impropriety. That said, the nature of the human condition is one of imperfection: And, from time-to-time, this will invariably be part of the influence of campaign funding. Incumbency offers both advantage and challenges and the bias effect of campaign funding can be elevated. So, minimizing the cycles where incumbents are raising money while in office can be accomplished by term limits. This provides a partial solution to the challenge and influence of campaign finance.
There are arguments that longer terms could benefit citizens by affording seasoned political leaders longer terms. This has an element of truth but it also tends to minimize the rejuvenating effect of bringing in new, younger leaders with different ideas and perspectives. It also tends to further promote the effects of campaign funding on political influence. And, let’s get to the meat of it, for Jacksonville offices, we are talking eight years of potential service in a single office. If political leadership has not accomplished their goals and made a difference in eight years, more time is not likely to add significantly to the prospect of further accomplishment. Life changes a lot in eight years and much can be done. A good study can become a PhD, a medical doctor or a lawyer in eight years, some less. Time is what you make of it.
There is another dimension to term limits that has benefited the citizen. We have seen many leaders enter county level seats and move on to more significant and influential political positions. Without being “termed out,” how many would have moved on to prominence in the state legislature, property appraiser, supervisor of elections, school board and clerk of the court (currently all hold past term limited Jacksonville City Council members)? Term limits have a way of “pushing out of the nest” leaders who can and do move forward. What’s more, term limits only force incumbents to stay out for one election cycle – so limits can a have an intermittent effect if voters chose to bring forward those who held office in the past.
Overall, I believe term limits are of value and help to make for better government. Term limits mitigate the biasing effects inherent in campaign finance and help to keep government and ideas from becoming stagnant. When our country was founded, the height of communication technology was the printing press. Times have changed and the process for elections need to change with them. I believe the voters of Duval County did the right thing when they voted in term limits. In this matter, I am only a voter. If the question comes to the ballot, I will continue to support term limits with my single vote.