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Lansing State Journal

Don't rehash term limits, be creative:
'Full Choice Voting' is way to empower voters, end imperial incumbency

By John Gear
February 14, 2002

With Idaho abandoning term limits, Michigan is poised to restart the term limits debate. Too bad neither side addresses the concerns of the other. Thus we're likely to hear the same arguments recycled, like an old couple fighting again about who suggested camping during deer-fly season.

There's a better alternative. It's a way to address the concerns that prompted term limits but also give voters all their ballot options back. People seeking change must understand and respect the reasons that voters chose term limits. If we don't, we can expect our concerns to be ignored in return, leaving us mired in the same old dead-end argument.

What mainly drives term limits is this: the average incumbent in the average single-member district is more likely to win the lottery grand prize than lose an election.

With term limits, voters said they were fed up with this, especially in state government. In many state capitols, turnover was lower than in countries where only one party was even allowed to run candidates.

More significantly, voters gave up on the idea that the power of incumbency could be trumped at the ballot box. Widespread incumbent invulnerability persuaded even reluctant voters something had to change. The problem is that term limits treat the symptom (untouchable incumbents), not the disease (safe districts that only elect one person, who is soon unbeatable).

This hurts because the paradox of term limits is that they make politicians less accountable, not more. As we saw with last year's scandalous pay raise, legislators cut off from voters and re-election don't magically become wise statesmen concerned only with the greater good.

There's a better way. Consider that the best way to fight malaria is indirect, draining the swamps where mosquitoes breed. The best way to fight imperial incumbency is indirect, eliminating the single member districts that breed invulnerable incumbents.

How? Combine state house districts into sets of three, electing three candidates each term. Add full-choice voting, which lets voters rank the candidates 1, 2, 3, and so on. With full-choice voting, if a voter's first choice isn't elected then, rather than being discarded, their vote goes to their next choice. This means far fewer wasted votes and much more democracy. Because it makes incumbents face other incumbents and newcomers for re-election, this will do more to solve the underlying problem than term limits has or ever will.

And it will open up the system in a way that term limits have not because it gives outsiders a much better shot at winning than in a one-on-one race against an entrenched incumbent. Full-choice voting removes the penalty for voting for newcomers because it lets voters know their votes will still count even if the challengers don't win.

The benefits of term limits without reduced voter choices. More representation for more voters. More opportunities for newcomers. A way to ensure incumbents remain responsive to constituents. Full choice voting gives us a way to build on and improve term limits by empowering voters rather than limiting their choices. Let the debate begin -- anew.

John Gear is a Lansing resident.

 
 
 
 
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