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Term Limits' Effect on Diversification

June 14, 2004

"Age Before Duty" (June 8) provided a thoughtful and balanced look at the retirement of four veteran state legislators due to term limits. However, it reflected one piece of conventional wisdom -- that term limits have caused California's Legislature to "look more like California." This deserves a closer look. Although it is undeniably true that today's Legislature includes more women, Latinos and Asian Americans (though fewer African Americans) than the body did in 1990 when our term limits initiative passed, these changes may also be the result of demographic shifts, two rounds of redistricting and the increasing electoral viability of female candidates.

Bruce Cain and I have attempted to sort out the effect of term limits from these other explanations of legislative diversity as part of a research project for the Public Policy Institute of California. Comparing the Assembly and Senate to the state's congressional delegation, which has not been term-limited, shows that women's representation has risen even more sharply in Congress. Looking at the timing of changes in the Legislature's composition reveals that many changes took place before 1996, when term limits actually went into effect.

Finally, we found that many of the new female and minority members earned their ticket to Sacramento by defeating incumbents or by replacing termed-out minorities or women. It appears that term limits merely accelerated a diversification that was already underway for a host of other reasons.

Thad Kousser


Assistant Professor

Dept. of Political Science

UC San Diego

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