Election Colorado Voting (print)

Election judge Ed Wingfield waits for motorists to drop off ballots outside the Denver Election Commission headquarters on Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016, in downtown Denver.

Term limits have been a fact of life for more than 30 years in Colorado, where the modern movement to restrict the tenure of elected officials was born.

While the notion of limiting terms in office had been around for decades — including the two-term limit placed on American presidents with ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1951 — it wasn’t until then-state Sen. Terry Considine took up the cause ahead of Colorado’s 1990 election that the concept took hold for offices below the presidency, but once the Englewood Republican sparked the movement, it swiftly grew into a cross-country wildfire.

A wealthy real estate mogul later inducted into the Colorado Business Hall of Fame, Considine, a co-founder of the conservative Club for Growth, ran twice for the U.S. Senate in Colorado: in a short-lived campaign in 1986 and then as the 1992 GOP nominee, though he lost to Democrat Tim Wirth. In between his Senate runs, Considine pushed for Colorado to adopt term limits when he served as a state senator, but after fellow lawmakers refused to impose them on themselves, he took the measure directly to voters in 1990 as a statewide ballot initiative.

Initiative 5, the state constitutional amendment proposed by Considine, passed with 71% of the vote in the same election as ballot measures inspired by his campaign in California and Oklahoma also passed.

Proponents argued that term limits would prevent politicians from becoming too entrenched, promote new blood and fresh approaches and encourage treating elected office as a public service, not a career. Opponents said term limits would prevent voters from being able to vote for the candidates they choose while empowering lobbyists and unelected bureaucrats, since elected officials would be ushered to the exit by the time they figured out the system.

Over the next few elections, Colorado voters approved three more ballot measures dealing with term limits by significantly narrower margins, though a series of court rulings have refined their application and — in the case of multiple attempts to impose term limits on Colorado’s federal elected officials — repealed the constraint from the state constitution.

For candidates and elected officials in Colorado, term limits are as much a part of the political atmosphere as the state’s powerful unaffiliated electorate, campaign finance limits and TABOR’s constitutional restrictions on taxing and spending.

The first round of term limits adopted by voters in 1990 imposed limits of eight consecutive years in any one office on state officials — governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer and legislators — amounting to four two-year terms for state House members and two four-year terms for the other offices. The limits didn’t go into effect until 1998, effectively grandfathering in all the officials who were in office when voters passed the amendment.

Passed by Colorado voters in 1994 with 51% of the vote, the next term limits initiative, known as Amendment 17, set various limits on members of the U.S. House of Representatives, local elected officials and members of the State Board of Education and the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

The measure allows local governments to extend term limits for their officials, and many have.

A year later, however, a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out an Arkansas law that sought to limit the terms served by officials the state sent to Congress — and with it, the portion of Colorado’s Amendment 17 that had the same effect.

The high court ruled that states couldn’t keep congressional candidates off the ballot if they exceeded the state’s term limits because doing so contradicted the specific, enumerated qualifications for federal office spelled out in the U.S. Constitution — for U.S. House members, that’s being at least 25 years old, a citizen for seven years and an inhabitant of the state. The Constitution sets the same requirement for U.S. senators, except they have to be at least 30 years old.

Over the years, Colorado courts have fine-tuned interpretations of the term limits amendments that still stand, ruling that legislators and city council members, for instance, can’t reset the clock by moving from one district or ward to another and running for office on the same body.

The Colorado backers of term limits returned to the ballot in 1996 with Initiative 12, another proposed constitutional amendment, which passed with 54% of the vote. The measure set two-term limits on U.S. senators, three-term limits on House members and instructed Colorado’s D.C. delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution setting congressional term limits. It also required election officials in Colorado to include “Disregarded Voter Instruction on Term Limits” next to the name of candidates who failed to support such a federal amendment, with a similar designation noting that non-incumbents had declined to pledge to support term limits, if they didn’t sign a pledge.

The Colorado Supreme Court, however, tossed the provision in a unanimous ruling in early 1998. Noting that the decision didn’t amount to a condemnation of congressional term limits, the justices wrote that the amendment nonetheless violated the U.S. Constitution “because it attempts to usurp our elected representatives’ exclusive authority to amend the United States Constitution using explicit mandate and coercion,” running “contrary to the principle of representative government.”

Undaunted, Colorado term limit boosters tried a different approach later that year with Initiative 18, which passed by the slimmest of margins, roughly 1 percentage point. The latest state constitutional amendment allowed the state’s congressional candidates to boast that they had voluntarily signed a pledge to limit their terms in office and instructed the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to include the declaration noting the pledge on ballots.

According to a National Conference of State Legislatures study, 15 states have term limits in place for state officials, while six states have enacted term limits only to later repeal them or have them overturned by court rulings.

In addition to Colorado, the states with active term limits, in the order they were adopted, are California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Missouri, Maine, Louisiana, Nevada and Nebraska.

After Colorado, California and Oklahoma kicked things off in 1990, 10 more states approved term limits in 1992, with the rest following suit by the end of the decade, culminating with Nebraska enacting its version of term limits in 2000.

Six of the 15 states with term limits impose the same limits as Colorado on consecutive terms state lawmakers can serve — eight years in the state House and eight years in the state Senate — though at opposite ends of the spectrum Nebraska, with its single, unicameral legislative chamber, caps legislative longevity at eight years total, and Louisiana allows lawmakers to serve 12 years in the lower chamber and 12 years in the upper chamber.

Unlike Colorado, which allows officeholders to reset the clock on term limits for some offices after sitting out for four years, several of the other states impose lifetime bans after officials serve their allotted terms.

The states that once had term limits are Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

This year, term limits have emerged as a campaign issue in the Republican primary in Colorado’s newly created 8th Congressional District.

One of the leading candidates, Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann, launched an attack last week on state Sen. Barb Kirkmeyer, the Brighton state lawmaker who hadn’t joined Kulmann and several other candidates in the race — including one of the Democrats running for the seat — in signing a U.S. Term Limits pledge to support a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms. Kulmann’s critics point out that she’s facing a lawsuit filed last year that claims she’s been violating municipal term limits.

Based on a novel legal theory, the plaintiff, a Thornton resident, argues that Thornton’s mayor and city council are actually the same office, even though they’re elected separately — with the mayor essentially an at-large member of Thornton’s City Council — so when Kulmann was elected mayor in 2019 after serving six years on city council, she wasn’t starting over in a new position but was instead continuing to run up the clock on her allotted eight years in office.

Under the theory, she passed the allowed term limit sometime last year. Kulmann and the city of Thornton, which is also named in the lawsuit, disagree.

A district judge agreed with a portion of the lawsuit’s contentions, finding that the offices are essentially the same for purposes of the term limits amendment that applies to local government, but ruled that Kulmann wasn’t in violation because she’d stepped down midway through her second council term.

The Colorado Supreme Court last month agreed to hear the case to sort out a thorny issue that could implicate other Colorado municipalities with arrangements similar to Thornton’s.

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