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Term of Office of Legislators

The tenure of legislators is prescribed by the state constitution:

"Representatives shall be chosen for a term of two years, except to fill a vacancy. Senators shall be chosen for a term of four years, except to fill a vacancy and except there shall be an entire new election of all the senators at the first election of representatives after each new legislative apportionment..."

These have been the specified terms of office for over a century, under an 1877 amendment to the constitution. Minn. Const., art. IV, sec. 4.

The constitution also schedules a state general election every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of each even-numbered year. State law directs that candidates for the legislature be listed on the partisan ballot at this election. The constitution and state law both specify that the term of office of newly elected legislators begins about two months after the election, on the first Monday in January of each odd-numbered year. Minn. Const., art. VII, sec. 7; Minn. Stat., secs. 204D.02; 204D.03, subd. 2; 204D.08 subd. 4, 204D.13 subd. 1.

As a consequence of this constitutional scheme, legislative terms coincide within each house: all 134 representatives are elected at once and serve the same term in office; the same is true for all senators. (At one time in the state’s history, the terms of senators overlapped—that is, half of the senate seats were filled at one election; while the terms of the other half of the senators carried over until the following election. This practice was ended under the 1877 amendment to the constitution.) Between the houses, terms of office may overlap, because the House term of two years is half that of the usual senate term of four years.

There is one exception to this pattern of two-year House terms and four-year Senate terms. Each decade, one four-year senate term is halved, because of two constitutional requirements. First, the federal constitution, as interpreted by courts since the 1960s, requires each state to redraw the boundaries of state legislative districts after each decennial federal census, to reflect geographic shifts in population during the preceding decade. Second, the Minnesota constitution expressly requires “an entire new election of all the senators” at the first election of representatives following every redrawing of legislative districts. As a consequence of these two constitutional requirements, legislative district lines must be redrawn every ten years after each federal census of population; and all members of both houses must be chosen from the newly drawn districts at the next general election. The result, for senators, is a repeating decennial pattern of terms of 4, 4, and 2 years (e.g., 2003-2006, 2007-2010, 2011-2012, etc.).

August 2014