It is often noted that even though the vast majority of voters support term limits, they will also reelect their own representative over and over and over again.
This is less of a contradiction than it may appear on first glance. Term limits are an institutional reform that affects the legislative bodies’ makeup and incentives and also who ultimately appears on ballots. That is very different than choosing between two or three candidates to fill a public post in particular election.
When voting to fill a post, voters look at the choices and pick the best one – or, in most cases, the least bad one. In many cases, that may be the incumbent. After all, the odds are high the opponent is not a serious one. In an environment where incumbents win their own seat in general elections some 95% of the time, serious goal-oriented people rarely run for office against them.
Hence, either incumbents go unopposed or they attract unqualified, even if well-meaning, opponents. These opponents are usually underfunded and are not even backed by their own political party. After all, with scarce resources, why would a party spend real money on unwinnable seats?
Meanwhile, the incumbent is a statistical sure thing and a great investment for special interest money and muscle.
Gerrymandering also plays a role. In safe seats where one party dominates, the likelihood is high that voters will simply pull the lever for their party’s nominee.
Voters seem to understand this better than pundits. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal on July17-21, voters were asked:
"If there were a place on your ballot that allowed you to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including your own representative, would you do this, or not?"
57% said ‘yes.'
Well, there isn’t such a place on the ballot. Instead, voters are asked to choose from a list of candidates – chosen through a flawed process skewed towards the incumbency – and they hold their noses and pull the lever once again. The old power brokers return to office and nothing ever changes. How could it?
No, the voters don’t love their incumbents. The same poll showed 83 percent of voters disapprove of Congress, a new record. Voters want competitive elections and rotation in office. They want term limits.