To the Editor:
There is a push in Illinois to pass legislation that introduces term limits on political office. Gov. Bruce Rauner is a proponent of such legislation and Michael Madigan is a prime target of it. But before we go that route, let’s make sure that as many people as possible vote. High voter participation can stop the political evils targeted by term limits and deliver a more representative democracy.
To many people, serving in office election after election enables political self-dealing. As time passes in office, incumbents get stronger holds on their seats and become less accountable to the public. Each challenger warded off makes an elected office look more and more like a permanent job. With permanency the incentive to tackle problems disappears. This is one narrative on political life sans term limits.
On these facts, term limits seem attractive. They’re certainly not uncommon. In Philadelphia the mayor is limited to two consecutive four-year terms. The same was true of New York’s mayoral office until Michael Bloomberg changed the cap to three consecutive four-year terms because he could.
If only term limits were effective at eliminating elected slugs and their political inertia. A term-limited politician intent on holding office simply runs for a different seat. Instead of new entrants to the political scene, the public gets a reshuffling of the deck. To avoid exiting elected office altogether, a term-limited legislator moves from the lower house to the upper house or a position that is not term-limited.
The real problem is that too few people vote. In the 2014 Illinois Governor’s race, only 36.4 percent of registered voters in Chicago cast a ballot. Chances are this older, more formerly educated portion of the electorate has a vested interest in the status quo. Elections on these terms have not diminished political self-dealing or brought about swift and effective solutions to pressing problems. Instead they have functioned to determine which camp of supporters closest to political power will benefit from an election night win. Term limits won’t solve this problem.
Increased voter turnout can because it naturally creates more accountability. While you can ignore public sentiment when only a third of registered voters cast ballots, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so when a larger portion of the populous, many of which are disaffected by political self-dealing, are involved in electoral politics. Elected officials are more likely to do the right thing when more eyes are watching.
Greater voter turnout also pushes politicians to abandon special interests in favor of more broad-based appeals to the average Jose or Jennifer. We see this happen when candidates move from primary elections to general elections and massage their messages to appeal to the demands of the general electorate. Why shouldn’t we expect these broad-based appeals to become a more defining characteristic of our electoral politics as voter turnout expands in all elections? Why shouldn’t we expect politicians to act on more populist appeals when there is certainty they’ll be held accountable by a constituency that will show up to vote in bunches?
For politicians seriously looking to tackle political inertia, the push for term limits should take a back seat to initiatives to multiply the number of registered voters and maximize turnout. Let’s set party politics aside and make it easier to vote by increasing access to polling sites for people with disabilities, offering translators to voters facing language barriers, and extending election day voting hours. Then let’s match these reforms with initiatives to grow the number of registered voters by restoring the right for ex-felons to vote, allowing same day registration, and experimenting with automatic registration. After all, there is power in numbers – large numbers of people voting.