Lawyering in Today's Political Process
is an associate attorney with Gillespie, Miscavige, Ferdinand, and Baranko, LLC, and manages their Pottsville, Pennsylvania, office.
For thirty-five days in the fall of 2000, America anxiously watched and waited as ballots were recounted in Florida. Before it was all over, several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, weighed in on the saga that ultimately decided the 2000 presidential election.
Since then, the role of lawyers has been thrust to the forefront of the political process in a country closely divided along partisan lines.
Candidates rely on lawyers to monitor Election Day activities. With the help of volunteers, lawyers ensure that no one who is entitled to vote is denied that opportunity. If a dispute arises within a polling station between a candidate’s supporter and the judge of elections as to whether the supporter is entitled to vote, it is a lawyer who garners a provisional ballot for that supporter. Lawyers also work to keep provisional ballots segregated from regular ballots until it is determined if those casting provisional ballots were properly registered to vote. Lawyers are called on Election Day to request injunctions when there are voting irregularities, such as a malfunctioning voting machine. Lawyers are the ones tasked with seeking to extend the amount of time the polls are open in the event of inclement weather and other abnormalities.
Lawyers’ role in the political process is critical not just on Election Day but throughout the year. In many states, aspiring candidates for public office can appear on ballots only after fulfilling highly technical requirements that are fraught with legal pitfalls. For instance, in Pennsylvania, someone seeking to run for the state senate as a major party candidate must first: (1) garner valid signatures of 500 members of his party who reside in his election district; (2) submit a properly completed candidate’s affidavit; and (3) submit a properly completed “statement of financial interest” to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Elections. Many candidates, even experienced incumbents, fail to meet these requirements to the letter of the law, to the point where court battles over eligibility to be on the ballot are increasingly commonplace.
The enactment of myriad campaign finance laws, particularly the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) or “the McCain-Feingold law,” has also increased the stock of lawyers in politics. Questions abound as to the legality of donations and how they are reported. Lawyers’ role in these matters is critical to ensuring that clients avoid fines from the Federal Election Commission and state election authorities as well as negative publicity.
Outside the election cycle, lawyers have opportunities to take part in the political process through their respective political parties. The national, state, and local arms of political parties often encounter legal questions involving the application of their bylaws or the treatment of their members. Lawyers play an essential role in sorting out these issues to ensure that these organizations run as smoothly as possible while providing openness to the registered voters that they represent. I have used my own background in business and municipal law to serve as solicitor for the Pennsylvania Young Republicans and aid the organization in establishing governing rules and reaching out to other young professionals to increase membership.
Both major political parties have organizations for young professionals, such as the National Young Democrats (www.yda.org) and the Federation of Young Republicans (www.yrnf.com). There are political groups specifically for lawyers, such as the Republican National Lawyers Association (www.rnla.org) and the Democratic Lawyers Counsel of New York (www.nydlc.org). These organizations train lawyers to be prepared for issues that may arise in balloting or other election law matters. Another way to be involved on a more local level is by contacting political parties or a candidate’s campaign and offering to volunteer.
In addition to providing a valuable service, lawyering in the political process provides many opportunities to network. While helping candidates that I have supported and ensuring that the rights of voters are protected, I have fostered many relationships with potential clients. I have even come to enjoy counting chad.
• America Votes! A Guide to Modern Election Law and Voting Rights. 2008. PC # 5330200. Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, Section of State and Local Government Law.