806 Fair Oaks Avenue
Public Interest Litigation
Oak Park, Illinois 60302-1547
Telephone: (708) 386-1122
Facsimile: (708) 383-2987
Cellular: (312) 391-8808
Legal Representation for Candidates, Political Organizations, Governmental Entities, Unions, and Business Organizations
Working With an Election Lawyer
by Richard K. Means
Political campaigns are serious business even though the office sought may not pay much of a salary, if any. Just like other business ventures, the serious and successful person is likely to have been guided from the beginning by an experienced lawyer. This is particularly true in Illinois with regard to election campaigns since the laws are made by incumbents who sometimes seem to be motivated by only one principle: to maintain their incumbency. Thus, most incumbents regularly consult their election lawyer both to guide their own actions and also to trip up their opponents. However, only the cynical would suggest that incumbents attempt to periodically change the election law simply in order to confound the unwary.
Q & A
Q. Do I really need to hire an election lawyer?
A. Probably. Most winning campaigns for important office are guided by an election lawyer. Some campaigns are won without a lawyer either because the candidate has made no mistakes or, more likely, because the opponent didn't feel threatened enough to assign his lawyer to have the erring candidate removed from the ballot. Any one of the dozen or so Illinois lawyers who concentrate their practice in election law will tell you that they have never had a client removed from the ballot who followed their advice from the beginning of their campaign.
Q. The various election boards and clerks publish instructions, guides and forms; printers have forms; many authors have written books on successful campaigns; and there are many experienced campaign managers available for advice. Can I rely on them?
A. Probably not. The instructions and forms which are easily available are sometimes wrong and, when not wrong, sometimes easily misunderstood. For example, in the last election with which they directly dealt, the most careful and expert agencies in Illinois, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the Cook County Clerk, and the Illinois State Board of Elections, each had at least one erroneous or easily misinterpreted instruction or form which could have resulted in a candidate relying on it being removed from the ballot.
Q. What can an election lawyer do for me?
A. He can make sure that you are qualified for the office you seek and, if the office can be occupied part-time, that you will be permitted the gainful employment you prefer if elected. He can advise in great detail how to get on the ballot, how to stay on the ballot, how to stay out of legal controversy during the campaign, how to give your opponent political and legal trouble and (when possible) remove him from the ballot, and how to behave when finally in office in a way which will enhance your chances of re-election. If he is one of the most experienced election lawyers, he will have a wealth of knowledge with which to give advice on campaign management and other political matters and he will have a wealth of political contacts which he can make available to you. He can defend you if you are challenged and, most importantly, he can give you a reliable and objective assessment of the likelihood of success of your campaign at various stages.
Just about the worst thing that can happen to a political candidate is to be removed from the ballot. The next worst thing is for the candidate to spend all or most of his campaign resources and time fighting just to get on the ballot leaving no time or resources to win the election. Campaign workers don't volunteer, contributors don't give money, and media don't disseminate sympathetic publicity about candidates whose right to be on the ballot is credibly questioned.
Q. How about if I save money by waiting until I am in trouble before I hire a lawyer?
A. By then, it is probably too late; it depends on the error made. Just like medical care, preventive care before you have a legal problem is far less expensive and more likely successful than blundering along or waiting to the point when your campaign may be terminal. An election law battle which could have been prevented with a hundred dollars of advice sometimes costs many thousands of dollars to defend and still may be lost.
Q. How do election lawyers charge?
A. Two ways: a flat fee or, more commonly, an hourly rate somewhere around $350.00 per hour. You should expect that the legal fees anticipated to handle a particular matter must be paid in advance (either as a flat fee or deposited into an escrow account) and sometimes a non-refundable "retainer fee" is charged.
Q. Can any lawyer handle my campaign's legal problems?
A. Any Illinois lawyer is legally licensed to allow him to advise your campaign or represent you in an election matter. However, just like in any other matter, the most experienced person who concentrates his efforts on a certain kind of matter is likely to be the most efficient and, in the end, the least costly while maximizing your chances for success. A lawyer who concentrates his practice in election matters is more likely to be prepared, available and efficient to respond to an immediate need than a lawyer who is busy with other urgent matters and who needs many hours of study to prepare to competently handle a complicated election problem. Less experienced lawyers may well be available at a lesser hourly cost; "you pays your money and you takes your chances."
Q. How do I find an election lawyer?
A. Ask any former candidate or public official who you trust to be candid with you and who has had actual personal experience with a seriously contested election problem. Was he satisfied with his lawyer? Were there other lawyers who he observed to do an outstanding job? Which lawyers are recognized in your community as "experts" because they write scholarly articles and give lectures for other lawyers on election law, head bar committees on election law, serve by appointment of the courts or serve as hearing officers for election boards? Which lawyers are prized by your political party or faction as giving sound legal and political advice? Which lawyers appear most often and have the most success before your local election boards and in your county's courts?
Q. How do I know if a lawyer is really playing straight in advising me?
A. When included in his advice to you, at every stage in his representation, is his objective and candid estimate of your chance for winning the election (or the current dispute), how much it will cost you, and sometimes the advice that you should quit before you waste any more time, effort and money (including on his further legal fees)!
[Richard K. Means is a Chicago lawyer who concentrates his practice on election matters. He is a twice former Chairman of the Chicago Bar Association Election Law Committee, has served as the State Chair of the Independent Voters of Illinois -Independent Precinct Organization, and is a founder and advisor to Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts). Means formerly was the Chief of the Election Law Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, has served as a contract attorney and on an advisory committee for the Illinois State Board of Elections. He is currently the Chicago Area Chapter Chair of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. He regularly writes articles and lectures on election law for other lawyers and is regularly appointed by the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County to serve to fill vacancies on local election boards.]