Election Law: Careers at the Intersection of Law and Politics

Vol. 41 No. 2

By

Carla J. DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska.

In addition, with the polarization of politics, society, and the economy, issues related to the election process itself have become a major focus. Who can forget the 2000 election, which pointed out flaws in voting equipment, ballot design, and election administration and ended up before the US Supreme Court? In response, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to help fund the replacement of punch card voting systems, establish minimum standards for administrating federal elections, and assist with election administration. In addition, HAVA established a new federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission, to join three existing federal agencies related to elections: the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Voting Assistance Program in the Department of Defense, and the Justice Department Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section. At the state level, liberalization of voting times and duration (think early and absentee voting) has created new opportunities for election law practitioners. This undeniably important and exciting practice area begs the question: What do these jobs entail and where can they be found?

The Work

In the modern political arena, the practice of election law has evolved into a truly diverse and complex practice area. Broadly speaking, it encompasses issues related to:

  • who is entitled to vote and the procedures required in order for them to vote;
  • who is entitled to hold office and the procedures necessary to appear on the ballot;
  • what subjects can be submitted to direct popular vote through referendum and the requirement for placing such on a ballot;
  • the requirements for creating political parties and selecting candidates for office (e.g., primary elections);
  • campaign financing;
  • the requirements for creating districts which elect representatives;
  • how votes are cast in an election (including the type of ballots permitted, how information is presented to voters on a ballots) and how those votes are counted; and
  • electoral fraud and other crimes against the electoral system.

Within this extremely broad field, the actual work done will largely depend on the employer. For example, the mission of the 375 full-time employees of the Federal Election Commission is to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law related to the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of presidential elections. Their daily work revolves around disclosing campaign finance information to the public, educating stakeholders on specific provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and enforcing the limits and prohibitions in the act. Compare that work with the position of election law specialists with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative. In that role, an attorney works with foreign legal communities in a country to help them develop lawyer-led processes for election oversight as well as handling complaints regarding and violations of the election process.

Closer to home, state and local election commissioners serve as chief election officers working with election officials to oversee state and local election laws, the conduct of elections in their jurisdictions, election tabulation equipment, and the voter registration systems. Commission staff members oversee filings for initiative and referendum petitions, conduct elections for political subdivisions, register voters, and staff polling places.

Election law is not just practiced by government employees. The public interest world also provides opportunities for lawyers who are interested in the electoral process. For example, the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) is a nonpartisan policy and advocacy organization whose mission is to remove barriers to registration and voting for traditionally underrepresented constituencies and improve election administration through administrative, legal, and legislative reform. Likewise, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is an international, non-governmental organization based in the United States that works globally to advance good governance and democratic rights by providing technical assistance to election officials, empowering the underrepresented to participate in the political process, and applying field-based research to improve the electoral cycle.

The Way In

Grassroots efforts and a deep passion for politics are often cited as the basis for any career in election law. Thus, it is important to make sure you have the commitment and interest in the practice area. Start by immersing yourself in the issues by checking out election law societies at your law school. If your school doesn’t have such an organization, think about creating one and working to bring in local, state, and possibly national election law speakers. Follow blogs such as Professor Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog (http://electionlawblog.org) or the Election Law Blog from The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law (http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/electionlaw). Both the Democratic National Committee’s National Lawyers Council and the Republican National Lawyers Association provide seminars on election law, coordinate lawyer volunteer activities during elections, and offer networking opportunities. Both allow students to join with a student membership.

Many government positions are by election or appointment so a history of campaign work for a particular political party is a must. Start local by volunteering for a party and candidate you support and parlay the experience and connections into a position within the party’s state organization or to run for an elected position. Be prepared for entry-level work and significant commitments of time and energy. However, after you have several election cycles under your belt, your work and dedication can quickly make you a trusted asset to your party. Efforts on presidential campaigns at the local level can result in legal counsel positions with national campaigns and/or national party committees in subsequent election years.

Private firms that specialize in election law can be found with the help of your career services office as well as online research for firms specializing in any of the following areas of law: administrative lobbying, campaign ethics, election and campaign finance, election law, executive lobbying, legislative lobbying, legislative redistricting, lobbying, and voting rights. Reach out to local elected or appointed officials to learn more about their career trajectory and gain their advice about where you should direct your efforts to maximize your employment options.

Turn to PSLawNet and Idealist.org to research nonprofit groups, community based organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government agencies for volunteer and paid positions such as election administration research fellow and election protection assistant coordinator. Check out available internships as well as summer institutes that can expose you to national and international election law opportunities. Other search engines such as SimplyHired can help you research potential employers and/or jobs.

Confirming your interest and laying the groundwork with volunteering can pay off big in your pursuit of a career in the growing field of election law. In addition, working to connect with political parties and players is key in landing a job where connections count.

Election Law in the News

In late 2010, Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel fought to keep himself on the ballot after facing a residency challenge. Emanuel and his family rented out their Chicago home when they moved to Washington, D.C., where Emanuel worked as President Obama’s chief of staff for nearly two years.

Burt Odelson, the lawyer who filed the residency challenge, claimed that Emanuel forfeited residency because he had no physical place to call home upon his return to Chicago.

Emanuel’s lawyers maintained that he only left to serve the president and he always planned on returning to his Chicago home.

On January 27, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling, unanimously ruling that Emanuel met the state’s residency requirements and that he could stay on the ballot. Emanuel was elected mayor on February 22, 2011, and was sworn in on May 16, 2011.

Election Law Resources

 

Professor Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog

 

Ohio State University’s Moritz School of Law’s Election Law Blog

 

Republican National Lawyers Association

 

Democratic National Committee’s National Lawyers Council

 

PSLawNet

 

Idealist

 

 

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