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Port: North Dakota's support for term limits is incongruent

"In urban districts, and rural districts, from the east to the west, North Dakota voters gave long-serving state lawmakers more time in office while simultaneously voting to curtail their ability to do the same in the future. How in the world does that make sense?"

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Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, right, during a meeting on Apr. 5, 2017, at the state Capitol.
Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
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MINOT, N.D. — The 2022 election in North Dakota was largely a status quo election.

Which is to say that the voters weren't much interested in change. They gave Republicans, who have dominated state government for more than three decades now, a larger majority in the Legislature. They re-elected all of the incumbents on the statewide ballot.

And yet, the voters also approved term limits. They approved an amendment to the state constitution that blocks voters from giving a governor, or a lawmaker, more than eight years in office.

That doesn't make any sense.

For instance, voters elected Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring for the fourth time. They elected Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak for a third six-year term. They also gave John Hoeven, who has been in elected office since 2000, a third term in the U.S. Senate.

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How do you square that heavy support for incumbents with a landslide victory for term limits?

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"But Rob," you'll say, "the term limits measure on the ballot only applies to the governor, and the state Legislature. None of those people you named serve in either."

Fair point.

Let's take a look at legislative candidates.

In District 35, Rep. Bob Marinson, a Republican, has been in office (with a brief pause from 1997 to 2000) since 1973. That adds up to 44 years. This week, his constituents gave him another four-year term, extending his run to at least 2026. Yet nearly 60% of those constituents also voted for term limits.

Go figure.

And that wasn't an aberration.

In District 28, Rep. Mike Brandenburg, a Republican, has been in office since 1997 (with a brief pause from 2000 to 2002). His constituents just re-elected him in a landslide. Those same constituents also re-elected Sen. Bob Erbele, another Republican with 20 years in office, and yet almost 64% of them cast their ballots for term limits.

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Rep. Keith Kempenich, of District 39, has been in office since 1993. He was just re-elected by voters who also, by a 62-point margin, supported term limits.

Sen. Judy Lee has 26 years in office, and was just given another term. More than 67% of her constituents also voted for term limits.

I could keep going, but I think you get the point I'm trying to make.

In urban districts, and rural districts, from the east to the west, North Dakota voters gave long-serving state lawmakers more time in office while simultaneously voting to curtail their ability to do the same in the future.

By the way, I expect incumbent Gov. Doug Burgum, whose second term ends in 2024, to campaign for a third term in office, despite his nominal support for term limits.

I also expect that North Dakota voters will re-elect him.

It makes me wonder how much time voters really spent thinking about this amendment to our constitution.

I wonder how many of them will regret their support for it a decade or so from now when it blocks their ability to send a candidate they like back to the Legislature.

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MORE ELECTION 2022:
Attorney General Drew Wrigley released an opinion about a week before Election Day stating North Dakota has no constitutionally permissible method by which to require proof of citizenship to vote.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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