By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
We are scheduled to decide, through referendum, whether we want to have our elected officials subject to term limits in the upcoming tribal elections (September 2023). While that seems like a long time away, it really isn’t. In fact, the election year begins only a few months from now.
To some, it may be a small idea. It is often said by some tribal officials that we don’t need term limits because their constituents will vote them out when they feel like they no longer want them in office. There could be a good case for that argument. After all, one of the models for democratic governance is the federal system and for the U.S. Congress, where there is no term restriction. Both Senate and House of Representatives do not have term limits. Why do we need term limits?
Well, here is one opinion. We are a comparatively small nation. Many of our members live off-Boundary and far enough away to make it difficult for them to come in when it is time to vote, narrowing the voter base to primarily those living on the Qualla Boundary and those living in the surrounding counties. Community elections can be determined by hundreds of people, not by millions as in federal elections. And in a space where there are only a few hundred people deciding elections, it is possible to have a candidate that might be repeatedly placed in office by a block of voters because of familiarity and not necessarily the good of the community. It is possible that the popularity of an individual could make it difficult for a well-qualified community member to overcome the long-term visibility of an incumbent who has the bully pulpit for multiple terms. It is possible to overcome this advantage, but it is much more of an uphill climb with a small constituency.
We have had and continue to have good representation in our tribal government. The issue is not getting anyone to leave due to longevity in office. As has been mentioned before, we need experienced leadership in our government, and we should never take for granted those who have led our tribe for multiple terms. What we need to try to do is prevent our governmental leadership from aging out without a plan for succession.
In that same referendum that we are scheduled to have a vote on, is included a question about staggered terms. If it stays on the ballot, we will choose whether we want our Tribal Council seats staggered so that only half of the Council is up for election each election; only one of the two seats representing each community would be voted on at each election. The mechanics of staggering terms may be accomplished in as little as two election cycles and would then be perpetual. Staggered terms ensures that the need for experienced representatives be in place at all times, and it can help alleviate any perception of special interest control of our government. The staggered term concept is in operation already on the Boundary, as the Board of Education for Cherokee Central Schools operates under staggered terms with only half of the School Board facing election with each cycle.
Term limits, in conjunction with staggered terms, are the best opportunity to build a strong and bias-free election process. It will retain the experience we need while encouraging more qualified members of our community to get involved. These proposed actions are supported by those who have been working toward the adoption of a tribal constitution and both are part of the proposed draft document. Despite those who are resisting the concepts, many tribal officials understand the importance and logic of going to limited terms and alternating elections to stagger them. And the term limit legislation would provide for allowing representatives to run again once they sat out for an election cycle.
Lastly, the referendum question in September 2023 will ask the community if they are ready to do away with the archaic two-year term for Tribal Council seats. One of the reasons the term “speed of government” has traction here on the Boundary is due to the two-year team. I have heard the arguments against moving to a four-year term for Council members, mostly that some in the community think it is important to be able to remove a representative who is not performing more quickly. That argument would have more credibility if we didn’t have so many multiple term incumbents. The reality is that while it is possible to vote out incumbents, it doesn’t happen often. Most retire out of their seats. A representative leaves when they are ready to leave, not necessarily due to losing an election, with limited exceptions. The issue is that perpetual “campaign mode” of thinking, going from one election cycle to another so quickly that they are constantly having think in the short term how to satisfy a constituency rather than thinking strategically over a longer term.
A four-year term would make a dramatic difference for the elected official and for the community they serve. This extension of terms would allow more projects to be seen through rather than halted every time a person got voted out of office. It would provide a stable platform for the governmental leader to not only learn their function but also implement their agendas, the platform that they got elected to carry out. A four-year term would make representatives more accountable, not less.
We need to untie the hands of our representatives to do the work we are asking to be done. The best way to do that is to enact four-year, limited, staggered terms.