Intriguing case study of Michigan that demonstrates the implementation of term limits can impede democracy

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Today, 70 percent of the American public supports reforms that would limit the number of terms a state legislator may serve, and the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits promotes this reform at all levels of government. But are advocates correct that term limits ensure citizens dedicated to the common good—rather than self-serving career politicians—run government? Or does the enforced high rate of turnover undermine the legislature’s ability to function?

In Implementing Term Limits, Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson bring thirteen years of intensive research and 460 interviews to assess changes since Michigan’s implementation of term limits in 1993 and explore their implications. Paying special attention to term limits’ institutional effects, they also consider legislative representation, political accountability, and the role of the bureaucracy and interest groups in state legislatures.

Their thorough study suggests that legislators are less accessible to officials and that there is a larger gap between legislators and their voters. Moreover, legislators become much more politically ambitious after term limits and spend more time on political activities. The selection of top chamber leaders is complicated by newcomers’ lack of knowledge about and experience working with the leaders they elect before being sworn in. As a result, term limits in Michigan fail to deliver on many of the “good government” promises that appeal to citizens.

Implementing Term Limits makes a unique and valuable contribution to the debate over the best means by which to obtain truly democratic institutions.


Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson is Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University.
Lyke Thompson is the Director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University and Professor of Political Science.

“The interview data analyzed in this book are incredibly rich and are used to examine a wide range of legislator and institutional outcomes. This work will be of interest to scholars who study legislatures and term limits and will be useful for classes in Michigan politics or even for practitioners in the state.”
—Christopher Witko, University of South Carolina

"The most comprehensive investigation of term limits at all phases of implementation in one state to date."
--Perspectives on Politics

- Perspectives on Politics

Watch: Implementing Term Limits quoted in Lynda Powell's congressional testimony on C-SPAN Link | 7/2/2019