How to Become a Legislator: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Explore the requirements to become a legislator. Learn about the job description and duties, and review the step-by-step process to start a career as a legislator.

Should I Become a Legislator?

Legislators draft legislation and pass bills into law. The job involves research, discussion and debate, so these professionals must have strong persuasive speaking and negotiating skills. Legislators work long hours, travel often, and relay on reelection for employment. Extensive contact with constituents is common and is both rewarding and stressful.

Legislators are elected into the state and federal branches of government as representatives and senators. In addition, board members in county and municipal offices are elected. While citizens from all walks of life and educational backgrounds can be elected to a legislative office, many legislators hold at least a bachelor's degree. Graduate education in business or law is also common. Most legislative positions have a minimum age, residency, citizenship and registered voter requirements. A criminal record can disqualify a candidate in some jurisdictions.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Not required, but a bachelor's or graduate degree may be preferred
Degree Fields Law, business or public administration, but any degree field is acceptable
Experience Experience not required, but prior work in government, business or management is helpful
Key Skills Communication, analytical and debating skills, expertise in subjects related to committee appointment
Salary (2014) $20,180 per year (Median salary for all legislators)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Rhode Island federal and state laws.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A degree isn't required to work as a legislator; however, the BLS stated that many legislators must earn bachelor's degrees in government or business to increase their chance of getting elected when running for office. A political science bachelor's degree program prepares individuals for a legislative career by covering related topics about government institutions, campaigning, international studies, law and public policy.

Success Tip:

  • Get an advanced degree. According to the BLS, many federal and state legislators choose to earn a professional degree in business or law. A master's degree program in public administration also provides the education needed to run for public office.

Step 2: Assess Your Qualifications

To run for office, a legislative candidate must meet minimum age, residency, citizenship and registered voter requirements. State offices have different criteria than federal offices, while local offices generally have the least stringent rules. Some states require that candidates have no criminal convictions in order to uphold the public trust. In addition, candidates must determine if they have the necessary experience, skills, and aptitude for the position they are considering. Public office is very demanding, and candidates must demonstrate effective leadership, communication and people skills.

Success Tips:

  • Consult the Secretary of State for requirements. Each state's Secretary of State office is responsible for issuing information about elections. Candidates who want to run for a legislative position can find the guidelines on their Secretary of State's website.
  • Gauge the likelihood of a successful campaign. Before spending money on a campaign, candidates must decide if they have a strong likelihood of winning the election. Polling the district and speaking with constituents helps the candidate gauge whether or not the voters support the policies currently in place, or if they are looking for new leaders. Candidates will also learn what issues and positions are important to voters, so they can figure out how to frame those viewpoints accordingly.

Step 3: Choose Which Office to Run For

Once candidates assess their qualifications, they must select what office to run they want to pursue. Municipalities are overseen by city councils, counties fall under county commissioners, and the state and federal government contains representatives and senators. Each of these legislative offices has influence over different areas of law that affect the voters in the district. Candidates chose what office to run for based on the legislative policies they want to influence.

Success Tips:

  • Start local. First time candidates, who don't have political experience or an influential organization backing them, might want to start by running for a city or county office, emphasizing a few issues that are important to the voters in their district. This way, the candidate establishes a political track record and gains experience before running for a higher and more competitive office.
  • Define a political platform. The platforms candidates formulate depend on the office for which they are running. Local politics often emphasize issues like budgets or government services. State and national politics cover many issues, so candidates will have to pick a few key points that resonate with the voters.

Step 4: File All Required Paperwork

Once candidates announce their candidacy for a particular office, the government requires that they file certain paperwork under strict deadlines. Generally, this starts with an affidavit of candidacy, which is filed with the Secretary of State's office, along with a filing fee. The candidate may also have to submit a personal financial disclosure statement. As the campaign progresses, there will be additional forms that must be sent in before various deadlines expire. Forms and information about required filings are usually available at the Secretary of State's office.

Success Tip:

  • Appoint a campaign finance committee. States require that candidates for public office create a campaign finance committee to handle donations and disbursements according to campaign finance laws. This committee must be formed within a certain time frame after the first campaign donation is received or expenditure is made. The candidate may also be required to file campaign finance reports with the Secretary of State's office.

Step 5: Obtain Nomination

The next step to becoming a legislator is getting the candidate's name on the ballot by filing nomination papers. Candidates are typically selected through one of three nomination processes. The first involves obtaining the nomination of a political party. The candidate must be a registered voter, affiliated with the party, and receive the votes of a defined percentage of delegates at the party's state assembly, which is held early in the election year. Another method is for the candidate to collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters in the candidate's district. The last method is running as a write-in or sticker candidate, which generally requires an affidavit or a declaration of the write-in candidacy. This declaration needs to be accompanied by a filing fee, or petition with voter signatures.

Success Tip:

  • Collect more signatures than required. Candidates are advised to collect extra signatures because some signatures may be invalidated due to flaws or deficiencies. The more the candidate can exceed the minimum number of signatures, the better the chances that the petition won't fail.

Step 6: Campaign

A legislative candidate's most important job is to campaign and rally for votes. This generally involves making public appearances, participating in debates, giving speeches, answering journalists' questions and meeting with voters. Candidates should inform the voters of their platform, and why they should vote for them over another candidate. A candidate's public presence is very important, as are the statements he or she releases to the media.

Success Tip:

  • Rely on qualified staff assistance. Although it's not required, it's very difficult to run a campaign without staff members. Candidates usually rely on campaign managers, who organize a candidate's campaign and schedule appearances, so the candidates can focus on their campaign.

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