Port: You might be surprised at how long North Dakota elected leaders are serving in office

Since 2001, the North Dakota Legislature has averaged 22 new members every session, a 15.67% turnover rate. The median time served among current lawmakers is just eight years. Since statehood, only two governors have served more than 8 years, and the average is about four years. Do we really need term limits?

PHOTO: Term Limits ballot measure petition circulator
In this reader-submitted photo, a circulator for a proposed constitutional amendment that would implement term limits in North Dakota uses signs that falsely claim the petition is about term limits for Congress. (Submitted photo)

MINOT, N.D. — A ballot measure campaign has been launched to amend North Dakota's constitution to implement term limits .

Some of the circulators of the petition to put the amendment on the ballot are falsely portraying it as term limits for Congress, but in reality, it would apply to the state Legislature and the governor.

Is it needed?

The knee-jerk reaction from some is "yes."

"We don’t have enough turnover in the Legislature. Once people are elected, they become entrenched. They stay too long. Many of them become out of touch," columnist Jim Shaw wrote recently .


That assumption is typical of those making a case for term limits, but is it accurate?


During a recent episode of Plain Talk , I talked over the question of term limits with former Gov. Ed Schafer (who served eight years from 1993 to 2000). Schafer said he's generally in favor of the concept of term limits, though against this particular measure, and part of his reasoning is that he doesn't believe North Dakota really has a problem with elected officials serving too long.

Why implement a solution in search of a problem? He also believes this particular measure was motivated by a fit of vindictiveness from a faction out to get revenge on Gov. Doug Burgum and the Legislature for, among other issues, the expulsion of Bastiat Caucus lawmaker Luke Simons amid accusations of sexual harassment , among other issues.

After my conversation with Schafer, I decided to do the math on how long our state's governors and lawmakers have served in office.

The answers may surprise you.


I pulled all data from the State Historical Society and the Legislature's database of lawmakers , both current and past. I also did some rounding. I counted only complete years in office, except for those governors and lawmakers who served less than a year. I rounded their time in office up to one year.

The governors

The term limits amendment being circulated ( read it here ) would mandate that governors be elected no more than twice. That leaves some wiggle room for, say, a lieutenant governor who has to take over the governor's job. They could finish a term and then be elected to two more terms of their own.

But as a practical matter, since gubernatorial terms in North Dakota are four years long, it's an eight-year limit on serving as governor.

How many times has that happened?

Since North Dakota became a state in 1889, our state has had 33 governors, and just two of them — Democrat William Guy , who served 12, and Republican John Hoeven , who served 10 — have been in office for more than eight years.

The average length of service for a North Dakota governor is just 4.5 years, but maybe that's a little misleading. So, let's look at the modern political era.


Since 1961, when Guy took office, the average comes out to just 7.6 years per governor, including current Gov. Doug Burgum , who is currently serving his 5th year in office.

The lawmakers

The limits imposed by this proposed amendment are a bit different for lawmakers than for governors. Both House and Senate members serve four-year terms, like the governor, but the amendment limits lawmakers to no more than eight cumulative years in a chamber. A lawmaker appointed or elected to finish an unexpired term would still have those years of service count against their cumulative total, but a House lawmaker term-limited in that chamber could still seek up to eight years in the Senate, and vice versa.

Again, the point of imposing these limits is to promote more turnover in office. "They stay too long," term limits supporters like Shaw tell us.

So, the first question is, what is the turnover rate in the Legislature?

I went back to the 2001 legislative session and, for each session, calculated the number of lawmakers who didn't return from the previous session. What I found was that in those 11 political cycles, the Legislature saw an average of 15.67 legislative seats turn over.

Which is to say that someone new was sitting in those seats.


This means that, theoretically, in an 8-year window, the Legislature could see more than 60% of its seats turn over.

In reality, that's not quite the case since some legislative seats turn over more often than others, but it does speak to a healthy amount of "fresh blood" coming into each new legislative session.

The other data I looked at was the years of service for current lawmakers, and again the facts don't support the idea that the Legislature is full of entrenched politicians who have been there for too long.

There are 141 members of the House and the Senate combined, and the median number of years served for the people currently in office is eight years.

The average number of years served is 10.3 years.

That, again, is counting complete years in office, except for those who have served less than one year, in which case I rounded up to a year.


Most of the current Legislature, over 56%, have completed eight years in office or less (including some with non-consecutive years served and who have served in more than one chamber).

Over 77% have served 16 years or less.

Does that seem like a situation where elected officials are overstaying their welcome?

Which supposes that their "welcome" is measured by some arbitrary limit in law and not the opinion of the voters who elect them.

Some people have served in North Dakota's Legislature for a long time.

Sen. Ray Holmberg , R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Bob Martinson , R-Bismarck, have served more than 40 years.

Sen. Tim Mathern , D-Fargo, the longest-serving Democratic member of the Legislature, has been there for 34.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner , R-Dickinson, has been there for 30.


But these are outliers. Most lawmakers have served far less, and based on about two decades worth of historical trends, each new legislative session will see an average of 22 new people seated between the two chambers.

That all seems very healthy, to this observer, and hardly in need of fixing from a constitutional amendment based on the presumption that voters are too stupid to realize when enough is enough for a given elected official.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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 Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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