Lessons learned from the term limit measure

Measure 1 – the enacted constitutional measure relating to term limits for the governor and state legislators – passed by over 63% of votes in favour. This victory came despite a previous legal battle over how many of the signatures on his petition were valid and whether the measure would make it onto our ballots. In today’s column, I share some lessons we can learn from the electoral success of this measure.

Several North Dakota journalists, commentators, and columnists like myself began discussing term-limit efforts in the summer of 2021, as the petition process began. Those of us who discussed the term-limits campaign early and often understood that it was a big deal.

By drawing attention to the term-limits campaign, we opened the door for meaningful debate and for opponents of term-limits to articulate their stance to the public. However, these chances were missed. Although there was an opportunity to debate term limits for well over a year, too few thought leaders in North Dakota bothered to raise the issue until the election was imminent.

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The debate on term limits was clearly derailed for several months in 2022 by the legal battle between the Office of the Secretary of State and the North Dakota for Term Limits campaign. The dispute over how many of the signatures on the petition could be counted led to great uncertainty. However, in mid-to-late 2021 and early 2022 — the period leading up to the court battle — and in the two months leading up to the election, the issue of term limits was ripe for discussion.

Tribune Capitol reporter Jack Dura reported that opponents of the term limit felt they were “just running out of time,” but with all due respect, I disagree. I count some tenure opponents among my friends; My goal is not to offend anyone. But I will give constructive feedback: Procrastination is not a good strategy.

Whether you think term limits are a good thing or a bad thing, you have to admit they sound good. Anyone serious about public opinion should have known that a majority of North Dakotans find term limits attractive. If you are opposed to a popular idea, you must make a serious effort to respectfully challenge voters’ views. A month before an election will never be enough time to educate voters on a nuanced issue. While opponents are not to blame for the petition signature lawsuit, the opposition has had more opportunities to influence public debate than it claims.

Many activists and candidates to the left or right of establishment center-right ideology plan elections months, if not years, in advance. In this sense, the establishment can learn from political minorities. It takes a lot of work to get voters on your side if you don’t see the mainstream standard. Those unaccustomed to electoral competition don’t seem to understand what political minorities do: if your political position isn’t currently popular, you have to meet voters where they are for long periods of time to move the needle. It doesn’t matter if most voters don’t pay much attention until the months immediately leading up to an election. In the meantime, work with your more committed base, solidify your collaboration, and develop a plan of action. If political minorities can work that hard, so can political actors mainstreaming.

My concern is that powerful opponents of term limits could use Measure 1 as an excuse to damage North Dakota’s enacted policy process. Be skeptical of arguments that we should weaken the citizens’ ability to legislate by taking measures. The ineffectiveness of a late opposition campaign that took an unpopular stance does not justify disempowering the people.

Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and educational researcher. This column represents their personal views and not the views of an organization. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago and did her postdoctoral work in Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her previous columns at EllieShockley.com