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

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

Do I Want to Be a Legislator?

Legislators draft legislation and pass bills into law. The job involves a good deal of research, discussion and debate, so these professionals must have strong persuasive speaking and negotiating skills. Legislators work long hours, travel often and experience continued job uncertainty due to elections. Extensive contact with constituents is common and can be both rewarding and stressful.

Job Requirements

Legislators are generally elected into state or federal legislatures as representatives and senators. Board members in county and municipal offices are often elected as well. 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 common as well. The following table describes the general requirements to become a legislator:

Common Requirements
Degree Level None 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 is not required***, but prior work in government, business or management may give a candidate an edge*
Key Skills Communication skills, analytical skills, debating knowledge, ability to develop expertise in subjects related to committee appointment**
Additional Requirements Most offices have minimum age, residency, citizenship and registered voter requirements. A criminal record may disqualify a candidate in some jurisdictions***

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 is not 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 competitiveness when running for office. A political science bachelor's degree program can prepare individuals for a legislative career by covering related topics on 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 might also provide useful tools on the steps 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 requirements than federal offices, while local offices generally have the least stringent requirements. Some states also require that candidates are clear of criminal convictions that could appear to compromise the public trust invested in that office. Candidates who meet these requirements 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 disseminating information about elections. Candidates can find guidelines outlining all the requirements that must be fulfilled in order to run for legislative office by visiting their appropriate Secretary of State's website.
  • Gauge the likelihood of a successful campaign. Before spending money on a campaign, candidates must determine if they have a strong likelihood of winning the election. Polling the district and speaking with constituents can help the candidate gauge whether or not the voters support the policies currently in place or if they are looking for new leaders. This will also help candidates learn what issues and positions are important to voters so they can determine how to frame those viewpoints accordingly.

Step 3: Choose Which Office to Run For

Once a candidate has assessed his or her qualifications, he or she must decide what office to run for. 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. The legislative policies that the candidate wishes to influence can often determine which office he or she runs for.

Success Tips:

  • Start local. First-time candidates who do not 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 can establish a political track record and gain experience before running for a higher (and more competitive) office.
  • Define a political platform. The platform that a candidate formulates will depend on the office for which he or she is running. Local politics often emphasize issues like budgets or government services. State and national politics cover many more issues, so a candidate will have to select a few key points that are of primary importance to his or her platform and to the voters.

Step 4: File All Required Paperwork

Once a candidate has announced his or her candidacy for a particular office, the government requires that the individual files 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 file a personal financial disclosure statement. As the campaign progresses, there will be additional forms that must be filed 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 generally require that candidates for public office create a campaign finance committee to handle donations and disbursements according to campaign finance laws. This committee must generally be formed within a certain time frame after the first campaign donation is received or an 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 important 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 may need 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 is 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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