Why municipal term limits are a bad idea

Since registration for the 2014 municipal election opened on January 2nd, there’s been a lot of excitement about which incumbent officials will fight to retain their seats, which might run for different offices, and which will bow out of public life all together.

With that excitement has come the suggestion from some quarters that our elected municipal officials should have term limits. When Karen Scian, City of Waterloo councillor, announced in December that she would not be running for her current seat in October, she suggested that she favours term limits. On the 3rd, the Kitchener Post ran an editorial suggesting term limits would bring “new ideas and fresh perspectives, perhaps even some much-needed diversity.”

Term limits sound good, at first. But they create new problems without solving the old ones.

What problems do term limits try to solve?

1) Not enough new perspectives

The Post says we need term limits for “new ideas and fresh perspectives.” This assumes that municipal councils are largely full of incumbents. It then assumes that incumbent councillors don’t tend to have new ideas or fresh perspectives, and then assumes that term limits would bring in more councillors who would therefore have new ideas. This argument falls down on two fronts. First, there’s actually a remarkable amount of turnover at Kitchener, Waterloo, and Regional Council. After the 2010 election, 25% of Waterloo City Council was comprised of non-incumbents, and so was the same percentage of the Region of Waterloo Council. On top of that, a whopping 64% of those elected to Kitchener City Council are non-incumbents. One only has to go back to the 2003 City of Waterloo election to find a council in which every single member of Council was new; the previous council was turfed in its entirety. In 2006, a newcomer to municipal politics won the Waterloo Mayoralty by beating not one but two experienced former mayors.

Not only is turnover possible without term limits: turnover is happening without term limits.

So what about new ideas? First of all, it’s strange to suggest that new councillors will necessarily have new ideas, and that returning councillors won’t. A person’s creativity can’t be measured by the number of terms someone has served: a new councillor may have stale ideas from the last century, while a second-term councillor might have great new ideas about how to move our municipalities forward. These are the questions voters can and do answer every four years under our system.

There absolutely need to be new additions to municipal councils. Fortunately, there are, both through voters in elections and through voluntary retirements. Councillor Scian did what any councillor should do: she decided that she had accomplished what she wanted to, and made way for someone else. But if a sitting councillor can’t see that his/her time of effectiveness has passed, the voters can and will see it for them.

2) Lack of diversity

The Post, and many others, suggest that term limits will help women and minorities break into councils that are overwhelmingly comprised of white men. It would be wonderful if that were true. Unfortunately, it generally isn’t. In a number of American states, the introduction of term limits actually lowered the number of women in state houses of representatives. This term, City of Waterloo Council has had 5 women out of 8 council seats. Two-term limits would have meant that all but one of them would have to leave Council. Who would have filled their seats?

For the most part, the evidence suggests that the sorts of people elected with term limits are the same sorts of people who are elected without them. In municipal politics, the Old Boys’ Club isn’t the Old Boys’ Club because of specific old boys who can just be turfed. It’s because there are structural and social reasons that women, those with lower incomes, and those who are racialised are less likely to run, and less likely to win. If we want to solve those problems, we have to find solutions that actually address or counteract those inequalities. (Like the Women’s Municipal Campaign School! Which is awesome! You should check it out.)

3) Incumbency Advantage

It’s no secret incumbents tend to have a better chance of election than new people who run against them. But to address incumbency advantage, we have to understand where it comes from.

Term limits don’t eliminate the worst part of incumbency advantage: name recognition. In municipal politics in Ontario, there are no political parties involved in municipal elections. This means voters have to figure out who to vote for without the cognitive shortcut that political parties provide (e.g. “I am a New Democrat/Conservative/Liberal, so I will vote NDP/Conservative/Liberal”). It takes some work to figure out who to vote for in just one municipal race, since you have to learn about each of the candidates individually. It’s much easier to process and retain information about someone whose name you already recognise.

But name recognition also plays a role in the ballot box. Most voters, I suspect, go into the ballot box knowing who they want to vote for as their mayor. But in Waterloo and Kitchener, they then have to select a ward councillor, a Regional Chair, three or four school board trustees, and two or four Regional Councillors. The first time I voted in a municipal election, I spent an hour looking over the newspaper, and had two write myself a note with the names of the eight people I wanted to vote for for five different offices. Not everyone does. If you don’t go into the ballot box knowing who you want to vote for to be your, say, councillor or trustee, you might make a choice based on whose name comes first on the ballot (and many do). Or you might vote for the name you recognise. Name recognition comes with significant advantages, whether one is an incumbent, a business leader, or an otherwise well-known public figure.

Fortunately, our municipal system already significantly reduces one of the most significant advantages of incumbency: fundraising. At other levels, elected officials and their party’s association in each riding can fundraise for the next election at any time, and can save up money between and through elections to spend on the next race. In Ontario, municipal politicians can only raise money in the year of the election. Challengers have the same window in which to raise and spend money as incumbents do.

So one of the big problems with incumbency sticks around with term limits, and the other already is much less of an issue at the municipal level.

4) Incumbents discourage new candidates

Yep. They do. People don’t want to run against people they think will beat them, whether those people are incumbents or not. Some people are more likely to get elected than other people. Some people might be famous or popular. Others have spent more time building political networks, with or without a campaign in mind. We can’t make people put the time, energy and sacrifice into running a campaign that they are unlikely to win. Close races are engaging, interesting, and important. Term limits might increase the opportunity for them slightly, but they don’t create them.

5) Lack of public engagement

The Post hints at the real problem: a lack of public engagement. An “appalling minority” of people vote.

In municipal politics, public engagement needs some basic things. It needs lots of elected officials who expect that they’ll have to face voters, and who therefore have an incentive to stay in touch with, stay attentive to, and work hard for the people they represent. It needs a lot of work between elections, from politicians, from neighbourhoods, from families and diverse communities. Term limits don’t help us to achieve any of that. And while I’d love to have a quick fix to the problem of broad political disengagement, term limits won’t do it.

So term limits don’t solve the problems that people often identify. But they do cause some of their own.

1) Lack of accountability

When someone is unable to be elected again, they are what is often (ungraciously) called a “lame duck.” A two-term limit would mean that each municipal official would spend half of their time in office without having to worry about facing their constituents in an election again. They have no particular reason to work with their communities to find solutions, or to meet the expectations of their constituents. They can make whatever decisions they want without real penalty. As long as they show up to meetings, they can choose to say or do nothing, if they want, and never have to justify it to the people who elected them. Elections keep politicians responsive, engaged, and honest. That’s why we have them.

2) Lack of institutional knowledge

Elected bodies with term limits tend to have a lot of new faces at any given time. Term limits, for example, of two terms in municipal politics would mean that we could expect, on average, for half of the members of our local councils to be new. Depending on when each was elected, some councils may have most or even all of their members barred from running in the next election. It takes time to get familiar with the system and how it works, along with the complexity of the issues faced by councils and municipalities. One consequence of such high turnover can be inefficiency and incoherence. Another can be too much dependence on others. In the United States, state jurisdictions with term limits report that their committees rely much more on unelected staffers for expertise and information. Term limits can give more control to civil servants, and give councils less competence to balance the information and expertise of those civil servants with various other considerations for their constituents.

The Americans have also found that having so many new faces so often has also meant that the same issues get revisited over and over every session with new people. Repetitive decision-making is not a good use of our elected officials’ time.

3) Taking power and choices away from voters

If term limits are instituted by provincial legislation (as they would have to be), the effect will be that political elites will be deciding to limit voters’ choices of who to have as their representative. Why should politicians get to tell the people who they can and can’t choose to represent them? There are good reasons why voters choose incumbents. If someone has been representing you for four years, and you’ve mostly been satisfied with their performance, why wouldn’t you choose them to do it again? Good incumbents build trust with their constituents over time. Choosing someone new means they might perform better, from your perspective, than your current representative. But they might also be much, much worse. Keeping a competent incumbent is often a reasonable, thoughtful choice for voters. Why should political elites take that option away from them?

4) Cui bono? (“Who benefits?”)

If we try to significantly reduce the power of incumbency in municipal elections, who benefits? As I explored above, there’s no reason to think it will be women and minorities. Forcing an end to incumbency doesn’t force an end to the inequality and oppression that make it harder for those disadvantaged by their gender, class, and/or race to get in the door of municipal politics. And it won’t help voters, who arbitrarily lose the ability to pass judgement on the work of their current representatives, and to choose the person they want for the job.

Term limits would create more races without incumbents. This might encourage some people to run who otherwise would not. Those people benefit. But they will mostly be the same people who would eventually run anyway, and who might have simply waited longer to do so or have run for something else.

Some current municipal officials in the school boards or ward council seats, particularly in two-tier municipalities, would benefit from the implementation of term limits. They would have an easier race for positions like mayor, regional councillor, or regional chair, which often have more prestige, pay, and/or responsibility than the seats those officials currently hold. This advantage will be strongest for people who had more power to begin with: councillors and trustees who have money, name recognition, and strong networks among the powerful don’t need as much time in their positions to consolidate their position and become known. It will generally be easier for them to turn their positions into more impressive ones. I worry that term limits could entrench issues of race, class, and gender inequality in our system, not improve them.

So term limits don’t solve the problems their proponents identify, and they create many more. Let’s focus on the problems we actually have, and put some real work in to find solutions to them. The health of our democracy deserves such care.