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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. View article »

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  • 0:03 Legislators
  • 1:11 Step 1: Earn a Degree
  • 1:51 Step 2: Meet Criteria
  • 3:06 Step 3: Choose an Office
  • 4:18 Step 4: File Paperwork
  • 5:15 Steps 5 & 6: Get…

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Video Transcript

Legislators

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 rely on reelection for employment. Extensive contact with constituents is common and can be 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. Legislators don't need experience, but prior work in government, business or management is helpful. Public office is very demanding, and candidates must demonstrate effective leadership, communication and people skills. Expertise in subjects related to committee appointments may also be helpful. Based upon information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), legislators earned an average of $42,530 a year as of May 2015.

Degree Level Not required; 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; prior work in government, business or management is helpful
Key Skills Communication, analytical and debating skills; expertise in subjects related to committee appointment
Salary (2015)* $42,530 per year (average 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.

Here are a few of the educational options for legislators.

Step 1: Earn a Degree

While legislators aren't required to have one, according to the BLS, many hold bachelor's degrees in government or business, which can increase their chances of getting elected to office. A bachelor's degree program in political science prepares individuals for legislative careers by covering topics related to government institutions, campaigning, international studies, law and public policy.

Here's a success tip:

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

Step 2: Meet Criteria

To run for office, aspiring legislators 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 for office 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 positions they are considering.

Here are a couple more success tips:

  • Consult the Secretary of State for requirements. Secretary of State offices are responsible for issuing information about elections. Candidates who want to run for legislative positions 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 an election. Polling the district and speaking with constituents helps them gauge whether or not the voters support the policies currently in place, or if they are looking for new leaders. Candidates can also learn what new issues and positions are important to voters, so they can figure out how to frame those viewpoints accordingly.

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Step 3: Choose an Office

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

Try these success tips if you're new to the political process:

  • Start local. First time candidates who don't have political experience or influential organizations backing them might want to start by running for city or county offices, emphasizing a few issues that are important to voters in their district. This way, candidates establish political track records and gain experience before running for higher and more competitive offices.

  • Define a political platform. The platforms candidates formulate depend on the offices 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 voters.

Step 4: File Paperwork

Once candidates announce their intentions to run for particular offices, 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 fee. Candidates may also have to submit personal finance disclosure statements. Additional forms and deadlines will need to be met as the campaign progresses. Information about required filings is usually available at the Secretary of State's office.

Ready for another success tip?

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

Step 5: Get Nominated

Future legislators get their names on ballots by filing nomination papers. They're typically selected through one of three nomination processes. The first involves obtaining the nomination of a political party. A 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 candidates to collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters in their districts. The last method is running for office as a write-in or sticker candidate, which generally requires an affidavit or a declaration of the write-in candidacy. The declaration must be accompanied by a filing fee or petition with voter signatures.

Step 6: Campaign

Once nominated, future legislators must campaign and rally for votes. This typically involves making public appearances, participating in debates, giving speeches, answering journalists' questions and meeting with voters. Candidates should inform voters about their platforms and explain why they should vote for them over other candidates. Candidates' public presences are very important, as are the statements released to the media.

Here are a few final success tips:

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

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

Let's review. Legislators, who earned an average yearly salary of $42,530 as of May 2015, have to follow a series of steps to get elected. For example, they must choose and assess their qualifications for a particular office, meet requirements for office holders, file paperwork, get nominated and run a successful campaign.


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