In a democracy, the question of who can run for office is almost as significant as the question of who gets to vote. This is true for at least two reasons. First is the interests of citizens who might wish to run for office: if candidate eligibility requirements are too strict, these citizens will be unduly denied their right to participate in democratic government by offering themselves to the votes as the best possible candidates for the offices at stake. Second is the interests of the voters who do not themselves wish to be candidates: they, too, have an interest in having the opportunity to vote for those compatriots whom they believe most qualified for these elective offices.
Indeed, one might think that there would be no need for any rules restricting the eligibility of candidates to those who meet certain specified qualifications. After all, presumably, we can rely on the voters to reject those candidates whom they deem unqualified for the job. If a sixteen year old wishes to run for mayor or city council, it is most unlikely that the voters will elect this candidate. But if they do, who is to say that voters in a democracy should be disallowed to make this choice?
Traditionally, however, our laws have always provided for certain basic qualifications to be eligible for certain elective offices, including minimum age requirements. Most well-known, for example, is the constitutional requirement that a person must be 35 years old to serve as President of the United States, although perhaps of somewhat more practical significance is the requirement that members of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old. Tradition, too, has required that a candidate be a resident of the same locality as the voters, although voters (again) presumably would not choose an outsider as their elected representative unless they had a good reason to do so. Perhaps the most questionable such limitation, at least by contemporary standards of democracy, is the provision of the Constitution that limits the presidency to "naturally born Citizens," thereby excluding citizens who immigrated from abroad, even in infancy. It seems difficult to justify why Americans are not permitted to elect as President the current Governors of California or Michigan, just because they were born abroad, if in 2008 or another future year the electorate considers one of these state-level chief executives the best suited person for national Chief Executive.
There are other sorts of qualification rules for particular elective offices: for example, the requirement that an individual be a licensed attorney to serve as a judge on certain state courts. Issues concerning the qualifications of particular elective office are left to Part 7 of this e-Book, which concerns the specific rules for different types of elective office. This Part addresses issues concerning candidate eligibility that cut across a variety of elective positions.
One distinctive form of qualification rule received an upsurge in popularity within the past decade, although the ardor appears to have cooled a bit in recent years. This kind of qualification rule disables a candidate from running for office if that candidate has been the incumbent for a specified number of years or terms. Such "term limits" are often criticized as anti-democratic in the same way that the "natural born Citizen" limitation on the presidency is criticized: both prevent the people from electing whatever candidate they think best. But defenders of term limits justify them on the democracy-promoting ground that they prevent incumbents from rigging the rules of the electoral process to give themselves unfair advantages over their challengers. Exploration of the issues involved in the debate over term limits, including evaluation of evidence concerning the impact that recently adopted term limits are beginning to have on the operation of government, may be found in Section 2.1 of this Part.
It is not enough that candidates meet the requisite qualifications for office. Their names must appear on the ballot. Otherwise, the voters will be unable to vote for them. The rules for getting on the ballot balance two competing considerations: first, the need to narrow the field of qualified candidates to a manageable list for the voters to exercise a meaningful choice; and second, the necessity that these "ballot access" rules not be so excessively strict that voters are deprived of the opportunity to select a candidate who already has mobilized enough popular support to have a plausible shot at winning. While the existence of two major political parties and the process of primary elections within each of these parties serve to identify two leading contenders for each elected position, it is important that voters have the opportunity to select an independent or third-party alternative if they are dissatisfied with the options presented by the two major parties. The rules concerning the ability of these independent and third-party candidates to get their names on the ballot are considered in Section 2.2 of this Part.