But does it work? That’s not what our research finds, as we’ll explain below.
Here’s how we did our research
To understand how politicians responded to term limits, we compared the careers of legislators in states that had term limits and states that did not. To do this, we assembled an original dataset tracking the career changes of about 7,000 legislators in 17 states, 12 of which have term limits and five of which do not. The information was gathered from state legislative and election records, secretaries of state offices and state libraries.
We found that, when restricted by term limits, legislative careers typically take one of five different forms.
In states with term limits:
1. Legislators want to stay longer, on average
Instead of retiring early, in states with term limits, legislators stay in office for as long as the laws allow. In Arizona, for instance, which currently has term limits, legislative retirements have dropped by more than 10 percent since term limits have gone into effect. This means that people stay in office longer than they did before term limits were a factor in their careers.
2. Legislators are more ambitious about running for higher office
In these states, members aim for the next-higher office in order to stay in service — moving from the lower to the upper chamber at an accelerated rate. For instance, in Arizona and Colorado, legislators move from the lower to the upper chamber more quickly than in the comparable states of Wyoming and Texas, which have no term limits.
3. Legislators sometimes leave the upper chamber for a seat in the lower one
Occasionally, legislators who want to stay in public service but time out of their upper-chamber seats will run for the lower chamber. We saw this most commonly in South Dakota, where since 1998 at least one person has moved from the upper to the lower chamber, with an average of three every election cycle.
4. Legislators who step down after their time is up return when permitted by law
Those who want to remain in public service eventually return to their seat if and when permitted by law. The most common U.S. term limit allows legislators to run again after waiting out an election cycle. We found this especially in Ohio and in Maine, but politicians do this elsewhere, as well.
5. Legislators will move back and forth between chambers
Many terms limit laws prohibit a legislator from returning to the same office, typically after eight years — but don’t prohibit them from running for a different one. By bouncing between chambers, representatives don’t have to leave public office, so long as they keep getting elected. We found that to be particularly common for Ohio legislators but saw it also in South Dakota, Arizona and Montana.
Term limit laws — like state legislatures — vary from one to another
Each legislature’s unique characteristics and norms can influence its lawmakers’ careers. But what we find is that, for the most part, term limits don’t replace career politicians with citizen legislators. Rather, they complicate, but do not end, public servants’ political lives.
Depending on how the law is written, legislators can and do lose some control of their career choices. But representatives who wish to keep serving find ways to do so.
Jordan Butcher is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.
Aaron Kushner is a PhD candidate and Kinder Fellow at the University of Missouri.