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Texas Election Laws
Throwing Your Hat Into The Ring
There is something quintessentially American about the idea of choosing to run for public office. Each election cycle which is basically year round in Texas due to the large number of scheduled state-wide and local elections within the state thousands of men and women decide to seek public service by announcing their candidacy for office. The announcement event is often a festive occasion featuring balloons, bunting, speeches, food and, if lucky for the candidate, press coverage. A person watching those candidate announcement events, might be led to think that running for office is as easy as merely "throwing one's hat into the ring". It is not. In fact the unprepared candidate can incur serious liability and perpetrate lasting political blunders by not being aware of the detailed requirements of Texas election laws. Texas election laws are not particularly difficult to understand but they can be confusing.
Statewide and local elections in Texas are governed by the rules and regulations codified in the Texas Election Code. Federal elections for such offices as President, U.S. Senator and U.S. Representatives are primarily governed by federal regulations that are not the focus of this article. It is crucial that a candidate for statewide or local office obtain a fundamental understanding and knowledge of the basic rules and regulations of the Texas Election Code. Below are a few pointers to consider in planning to get a candidacy for public office off the ground.
Getting Started: Meeting the Qualifications
One of the elementary steps in beginning a candidacy for public office is to make sure that the candidate in fact meets the qualifications for the office sought. Virtually every public office requires that candidates meet requirements regarding the age of the candidate at the time of assuming the office, how long a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen, residency requirements for the district or office sought, and whether the candidate is required to be a licensed and practicing attorney. Obviously, all candidates must be United States citizens but the length of Texas and district residency is not uniform. Minimum age requirements for public office also vary depending upon the office itself. (Example: the office of State Representative requires that the candidate be a Texas resident for 2 years prior to the date of the general election, be a resident of the State Representative district for 1 year during the same period, and be at least 21 years of age at the time the candidate assumes the office upon election.)
Except for the position of Justice of the Peace, a candidate for judicial positions from the State Supreme Court down to the local district and county civil and criminal judge must be a licensed attorney. The required length of years the judicial candidate has practiced law however varies widely. [Example: the office of State Supreme Court Justice requires a candidate to be a Texas resident (no length of time specified), be 35 years of age at the time of assuming office and have practiced law for at least 10 years. By contrast the office of Family District Judge requires that the candidate be a Texas resident and a resident of the specific judicial district for 2 years prior to the general election, be 25 years of age and have at lease 4 years of legal practice). Further, statutory requirements for other judicial positions may vary widely.
The point to all this is that it pays for a candidate to do the necessary homework concerning the qualifications for office.
Resource Cite: See the Texas Secretary of State web site for detailed candidate qualifications charts and other candidate information.
Filing for OfficeThe date and mechanics of actually filing for office comes quite late in the process of beginning a campaign. Usually, there is a period during which a candidate must file for office in order to have a place on the ballot for that election. This period varies widely and is dependent upon the office sought and the date of the election. (Example: Municipal and local school district elections occur at various times throughout the year). By and large there is usually a 30 day period during which a candidate must file for office. (Example: A candidate seeking a position on the March, 2004 Democratic or Republican Primary ballot must file for office between December 3, 2003 and January 2, 2004.)
On the occasion of filing for office the candidate must complete an application for office. Much care must be taken in completing the application for office. Mistakes or incomplete information in the application process have been known to disqualify candidates. The location where a candidate must file the application also varies. A candidate for a local municipal school district or political subdivision election will file the application with the city secretary or the secretary of that particular political subdivision. In Democratic or Republican Party Primary races, the application is either filed with the state party or the local county party depending upon the race. The same is true for Libertarian and Green Party nominating conventions. Independent candidates file applications with the Secretary of State and the local county Judge (often the County Clerk) for a place on the general election ballot. Independent candidates must also file "nominating petitions" for office. The number of required signatures depends upon the position being sought. (Example: Independent Justice of the Peace candidates must file a petition that contains the signatures of 500 signatures.) The requirements for "Write-In" candidates are much more detailed.
In addition to filing for office, a candidate must either pay a "filing fee" or present petitions in-lieu of the filing fee. (Example: A candidate for Governor must either pay a $3,000.00 filing fee or present a petition bearing 5000 signatures; a candidate for County Clerk must pay $600.00 or file 500 signatures.)
Finally, candidates for the Courts of Appeals in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 14th, Districts, as well as all candidates for judicial offices in Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Tarrant Counties must file a 250 signature judicial petition in addition to the filing fee or have 250 additional signatures on the petition in lieu of filing fee.
Once again, the point to all this is that a candidate must do the necessary pre-filing homework to understand where, when and how to file for office.
Elected Official CautionCurrently Elected Officials should take particular care in determining the timing of filing their petition for candidacy for another office other than the one they may currently hold. Article XVI, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution requires a laundry list of elected officials to resign their current seat in conjunction with the filing of an application for a place on the ballot. This "resign to run" rule applies if the official holder's current position has a term remaining in excess of one year at the time the office holder files an application for a place on the ballot for the new office sought. If so, the elected official may be considered to have resigned his or her current position upon filing for the new office. The resign to run rule does not come into effect at the mere filing of a campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission (See Texas Election Code, Section 251.001)
Resource Cite: See the Texas Secretary of State web site or call the Office of the Secretary of State for detailed candidate filing application information. Municipal local school district, and other political subdivision election candidates should contact those entities secretaries for filing information.
Raising Money & Campaign Contribution ReportingIt is said that money is the mother's milk of politics. That is true. It is also the single largest source of candidate liability and embarrassment for misreported information. In Texas, campaign finance regulation is the domain of the Texas Ethics Commission. Candidates should consider the Texas Ethics Commission to not be a finance reporting agency but also an invaluable resource to be consulted in understanding campaign finance rules and regulations.
Long before a candidate takes the step of filing for office, sometimes months if not years prior, a candidate will want to file a designation of a campaign treasurer with the Texas Ethic Commission, the County Clerk, or the secretary of the governing body of the political subdivision in which the candidate will be running.
Why? Simple. Without a campaign treasure designation being on file with the proper authorities, a candidate may not accept any campaign contribution or make any campaign expenditures--including an expenditure of personal funds. A candidate cannot even pay the application filing fee unless the campaign treasurer designation is on file. The appointment of a campaign treasure is effective when filed. Filing a campaign treasurer appointment and filing for a place on the ballot are two completely separate actions.
A campaign treasure is not required to have any particular qualifications. A candidate may appoint anyone, including the candidate, or a family member of the candidate to serve as treasurer. The campaign treasurer has no legal duties. In fact, it is the candidate that is liable for violations of campaign finance regulations.
After a campaign treasurer appointment is filed, a candidate may raise and spend money on the campaign. Additionally, the candidate will be responsible for filing campaign finance reports on January 15th and July 15th of each year. Additional reports are due 30 and 8 days prior to an election and 8 days prior to a runoff election. These reporting deadlines are very serious. Any citizen may file a criminal complaint with the district attorney, a civil complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, or a civil action against a candidate for violations of Title 15 of the Texas Election Code concerning a candidate's failure to file a finance report. Any penalty stemming from such complaints would be assessed against the candidate not the campaign treasurer.
It bears noting that candidates for a judicial position on any court in the State of Texas are required to adhere to even more detailed and stringent election finance regulations. Some court candidates are required to file campaign finance reports with both a local county as well as the Texas Ethics Commission. More problematic is the fact that judicial candidates are required to maintain campaign contribution limits and only raise money within a specified time period prior to the election. Judicial candidates must take extra precautions to know and understand the Texas campaign finance regulations.
Some Points About Campaign Financing in Texas
A candidate may not accept a contribution or make a campaign expenditure until a campaign treasurer appointment has been filed.
A candidate may not accept contributions from labor organizations or from most corporations.
To be able to accept out of state political action committee contributions, certain detailed information concerning the PAC must be obtained from the PAC.
A candidate may not accept more than $100.00 cash from one person in a reporting period.
A candidate may not use political contributions to purchase real property.
A record of the name and address of each person who contributes to the campaign must be kept regardless the amount of the contribution. Texas law does not allow for anonymous contributions.
A candidate may not use political contributions for personal purposes.
A candidate may not use political contributions to pay for personal services rendered by the candidate, the candidate's spouse or dependent children.
A candidate may reimburse personal expenditures from campaign funds if the expenditures were reported and a disclosure was made that reimbursement was intended.
Federal law generally prohibits candidates from accepting contributions from foreign sources. If in doubt, don't.
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