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Every job offer I receive comes with the provision that I pass a background check, to which I have no choice but submit.

It was said of one politician that they wouldn't be allowed to work at a 7-Eleven yet they were running for highest office in the land. Another example was a NYC mayoral candidate who committed lewd acts with children and by his candidacy was proposing to have the public school system accountable to him.

Is there any equivalent to the background checks required in professional spheres for those who seek public office?

  • Please don't use comments to answer the question. If you would like to answer the question, write a full-fledged answer which adheres to our quality standards. – Philipp Nov 14 '17 at 21:06
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    Sometimes the people really want a particular politician, especially in times of civil unrest. I'm thinking of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Sands who was elected while in prison. This may become a live issue in the Catalan elections too. – pjc50 Nov 14 '17 at 22:12
  • Perhaps your experience is not the norm? I've never had any sort of background check, other than enquiries about professional ability. – jamesqf Nov 16 '17 at 20:29
  • In the Philippines it is quite common for Congressmen to run for office while imprisoned - and not for political crimes, either. The question as worded is not just asking about the US, or developed world. – smci Nov 16 '17 at 21:43
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In general, the point of electing someone is that the voters are supposed to decide their qualifications. When there are restrictions on who can hold an office, the restrictions tend to be very simple -- are you a citizen, are you a resident of the area, have you been convicted of a felony, etc. Some positions might require certain professional qualifications (e.g. requiring a prosecutor to be a licensed lawyer), but again, those are fairly simple yes/no questions and are requirements you'd probably have met long before running for office.

At the federal level, the only background requirements are those set out in the Constitution. Representatives must be at least 25, Senators at least 30, Presidents at least 35; Representatives must have been a citizen for 7 years, Senators 9, Presidents their whole life; Representatives and Senators must be residents of the state they represent; someone who swore to uphold the Constitution and then took part in a rebellion against it can't hold any office at any level of government; and someone who's been impeached and removed from federal office can be barred by the Senate from ever holding any federal office again (I don't think this applies to being in Congress but does apply to being President, but am unsure). Per Powell v. McCormack, the constitutional requirements for Congress are the only requirements for Congress; I believe the same logic would be extended to the Presidency if it ever came up.

The kind of background check a private company does, where they subjectively decide based on your full background whether or not you're suitable, is not used for elective office. The closest you'd get is if you need a professional license (like a prosecutor needing to be a lawyer), where the license might have some subjective "good moral character" requirement, the only requirement for the office is that the licensing agency has licensed you.


That's not to say there's no subjective background component. Both the opposition and the press are able to dig into your background and report whatever they find. That lets the voters decide whether or not your background is disqualifying. The whole point of putting an office up to a vote is that you trust the voters to decide who is suited to hold that office. For instance, at the time I'm writing this US Senate candidate Roy Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct back in the 1970s. This is the sort of thing that will basically never show up on a normal background check; however, the media attention on the Senate race meant people were probing deeply into his history, resulting in accusers coming forwards. Now that the allegations are public, the voters of Alabama get to decide whether or not they want to elect someone who's been accused of these things.

  • Might be worth adding the state level as well. Many states disqualify would be politicians for criminal records. Some limit this disqualification to types of offenses (IE: ones that violate trust, like embezzling from a company), others have blanket bans for any type of felony. Some places have lifetime bans if you ever meet the criteria, others automatically restore rights, a few have hoops that much be jumped through. It's not /quite/ a background check, but close enough at the state level. – Jack Of All Trades 234 Nov 15 '17 at 13:11
  • This is a reasonable answer as far as it goes, but IMO it should explicitly state that it's a partial answer. The question asked about politicians and people who hold public office, not just people who hold an elected office. – Peter Taylor Nov 15 '17 at 14:38
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The process of background checking is done by the party, as part of candidate selection. The process varies from state to state. However the party would normally research and check the background of any person who intends to represent the party.

In many countries the local or national party has the final word on who the choose to represent them. For example in the UK, the political parties form selection committees. The committee investigates potential candidates and chooses among them the person who will appear on the ballot.

However the USA is unusual in having the primary system, this allows a much wider range of people to become involved in pre-selection. It means that the preselection process is much more open - and so more politicised. The opposition party investigates any candidates, as does the media, hoping to find any misdeeds that can be used to attack the candidate.

In many ways the background check is much deeper than for other professional jobs. A teacher would expect to have to disclose their criminal record to their employer, but would not have the other candidate going through their twitter feed for anything embarrassing they might have tweeted in the past.

  • In the UK there are also independent candidates and they are not subject to background checks. Sometimes they do get elected. – Jonathan Rosenne Nov 17 '17 at 14:30
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In addition to the other answers, some politicians are required to report certain information such as their sources of income. This is usually at the state level and below.

An example is the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. Every politician elected to state office and below in Washington State must file a yearly form with the PDC that describes their financial status and income, with emphasis on income that may represent a conflict of interest or special interest.

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