Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s announcement that she would not seek re-election in 2014 caused a predictable stir, given her history of inspiring both passionate support and opposition. In her announcement, Bachmann drew parallels between her decision to retire her post and her support of the term limits imposed on other office-holders, saying, “…the law limits anyone from serving as President of the United States for more than eight years. In my opinion, well, eight years is also long enough for an individual to serve as a representative for a specific congressional district.” Bachmann's allusion to term limits caught our eye, given the relationship between term limits and women's representation in elected office over the past several decades.
As there are no term limits for Members of Congress, not much can be said about the affects of term limits on our federal legislature. On the state level, however, legally-mandated term limits have had a mixed impact on women's representation in state legislatures - creating new chances for turnover that can help female challengers, but which can also lead to the loss of strong female incumbents.
When a movement to enact term limits for state legislators swept through many states in the 1990s, most expected the new laws to be a boon for women’s representation, as entrenched male incumbents would make way for a new generation of female legislators. Unfortunately, the results were not as dramatic as proponents had expected. In many state house elections following the enactment of term limits (thought certainly not all), more women were replaced by men than vice versa. As Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief explained in 2007, “The evidence has shown that it has had absolutely no positive effect at all… The problem is there aren't as many women running as we expected.”
On the other hand, some studies have shown a positive effect between term limits and women's representation, especially in state senates. In a 2011 study, for example, Heather Vaughan found that between 1994 and and 2011, term limits had a significant effect on women's representation in states' upper houses, increasing their representation by approximately 7%. Vaughan attributed this positive correlation in part to a "pipeline effect", in which women who were term-limited out of office in their state's lower chamber decided to run for office in their state's upper chamber. In short, term limits can allow for more women to enter the political office, so long as enough women are actually running.
Unfortunately, it seems that Michele's Bachmann's self-imposed term limit may lead to a decrease in women's representation in the House. Despite her narrow victory in 2012, Minnesota’s sixth congressional district is staunchly conservative and almost certain to elect another Republican in 2014 (Bachmann was a very weak candidate in a district that an average Republican incumbent would be expected to win by margin of 20 percent). Republican women have historically been much less likely to run for Congress than Democratic women; at present there are four times as many female Democrats as there are female Republicans in the Senate, and three times as many in the House. Therefore, it is fairly safe to expect that Bachmann’s successor will be Republican man.
Term limits’ mixed impact on women’s representation shows that we need more structural changes to our electoral system if we hope to increase women's representation in elected office, such as adoption of fair representation voting systems and new party rules that promote gender parity.
The implementation of fair representation voting, an American system of proportional representation using multi-member districts, would provide new opportunities for female candidates. In certain states, multi-member districts have been shown to lead to an increase in the number of women running for, and winning, office. And internal party rules that promote the nomination of female candidates have been shown to be highly effective tools for improving the representation of women in government, and could be especially helpful when used in combination with fair voting. In Sweden, three major political parties have enacted rules designed to increase the number of women they nominate for elected office. As a result, Sweden ranks fourth globally in women’s representation in the national legislature (the United States ranks 91st).
Together, these two reforms could have a significant impact on efforts to improve the representation of women in elected office, so that when one women decides not to seek re-election, we can feel confident that another female politician will rise up and take her place.