Want to run for political office?  Most candidates are surprised to learn just how difficult it is to get onto the ballot.  Many first time candidates ask, “Where do I sign up to run?” If only it were that simple…

Rules vary from state to state and town to town, but in most places, a candidate must get nominating petitions (usually a simple form) from their local elections office, and must get a certain number of signatures on those ballots in order to qualify to appear on the ballot.  Any candidate who cannot or does not get the required number of signatures will not appear on the ballot, and must run as a write-in candidate.

Learning the Rules

The first thing your campaign needs to do is to learn the rules of the game. Find out what body governs your election.  For most state legislative offices and statewide offices, it will be your state’s Secretary of State.  It could also be your state’s Board of Elections or Board of Canvassers.  For most local and county-wide elections, it will be your county Board of Elections or Board of Commissioners.  Some cities have their own elections boards.  Find out what body makes the rules, then talk to them to find out what you have to do to get on the ballot.

Your state will have set a minimum number of signatures that you need to get on your petitions in order to get on the ballot.  It might be 5 or 50,000, depending on your state and the office you are running for.  The bigger the district, the more signatures you will need.  The bigger the office, the more signatures you will need.

Bear in mind that if you’re running as a member of one of the major political parties, you will generally be getting petitions signed so that you can appear on the ballot in the party primary election.  Only those who win the primary will appear on the general election ballot in the fall.

Third Party / Independent Candidates

If you are running as an independent or as a candidate for a smaller (“third”) party, you generally will not be running in the primary election (though you should double check this with your individual state, particularly in “open primary” states).  In that case, you will be getting signatures on your nominating petitions in order to appear on the ballot in the fall general election, along with those who won the party nominating primary elections.

As a general rule, it is much more difficult for third party candidates and independents to get on the fall ballot than it is for party candidates to get on the primary ballot.  Independent and third party candidates need to get many more signatures than do party candidates.  This is partly due to a bias in the system in favor of party candidates, and partly due to the fact that independent candidates do not have to go through the primary system where voters vet candidates before they are placed onto the general election ballot.

Ballot rules change often. Make sure you know the current rules before you begin.

In any case, if you’re an independent candidate you will generally be required to get a very large number of signatures based on a certain percentage of total votes cast in a similarly sized election in the previous year.  Check with your elections board for the exact number you will need.

Valid Signatures / Valid Petitions

The goal for collecting signatures is not just to gather enough signatures to meet your state’s required number.  Your goal is to gather enough valid signatures to meet your state’s required number.  State and local boards of election have very, very strict rules about filling out your nominating petitions.  These rules may include who can circulate your petitions, who can sign your petitions, how they need to be filled out, what information is required, and when you can circulate them.

States are very strict about these rules, and after the petition circulating period is over, expect your opponents to closely examine the petitions you filed (they are generally available to the public) to try and find violations of the rules.  Your opponents can – and will – challenge your petitions by going either to the board of elections of to a local court to say that a number of your signatures are not valid, and thus should not be counted in your total.  Their goal is to invalidate enough of your signatures / petitions to knock you off the ballot.

In some states, an invalid signature on a petition can invalidate the whole petition!  (Each petition is usually only one page long, thus if you need 200 signatures you may be turning in 20 petitions).  If your petition circulator didn’t fill out his or her portion of the petition, that petition might be tossed.  Alternately, individual signatures may be struck as invalid, while the rest of the petition is left standing.  In any case, make sure you follow the rules!  Make sure everyone on your team understands the rules, and make sure you double check those petitions before you hand them in to be counted.  Courts are very strict about nominating petition rules!

Finally, you should have a team from your campaign go down to the office where the nominating petitions are filed as soon as they are turned in and request a copy of your all of your opponents’ petitions.  Have some detail oriented staff or volunteers comb through your opponents’ petitions and see if you can get your opposition tossed off of the ballot.  The easiest way to beat another candidate is to get them tossed off the ballot before the election even happens.

Setting a Goal for Your Nominating Petitions

Now that you know how strict the rules are about nominating petitions, and how ready and willing courts and boards of election are to toss candidates off the ballot for faulty petitions, take that into account as you set your goal for what number of signatures you want to collect for your campaign.  You definitely want to collect more signatures than your state requires for the office you are seeking – that way, if some of your signatures are invalidated, you will still have enough to be able to run.

The general rule of thumb that I always tell candidates is to try to get 2 ½ times more signatures than required.  Thus, if you are required to get 100, get 250.  If you are required to get 2000, get 5000.  You will still need to follow the rules, but this way, you know you are probably safe.  If you file far more signatures than required, it can also be a great way to show broad based support in the media, and might scare your opponents off from even trying a ballot challenge.  For larger races, if you can’t get 2 ½ times as many signatures as required, just do your best to get as many as possible above that threshold.

Gathering a Ballot Team

Once you know the rules and have your goal, it’s time get together your ballot team – these folks will be your “petition circulators.”  The same rules apply here as for your volunteer efforts in general – find good people who support you and are willing to dedicate a portion of their time toward helping you win.  Remember that most states set very specific timeframes when petitions may be circulated, so be sure to gather your team before then, but not to actually circulate petitions until the permitted circulation period.

You’ll need a dedicated team of volunteers to help you circulate your petitions.

Once you ask enough folks to help, hold a low-key training to teach them the rules and let your team ask any questions they might have.  Provide them with all the materials they will need, including petitions, a clipboard to make signing easier, pens, etc.

Give your team a specific goal… a specific number of valid signatures you want each person to get.  Tell them to approach their personal friends and neighbors first, so long as those people meet the requirements set forth by the petition rules. Also divvy up your district geographically, and assign each volunteer a different area to cover – that way, no voter will get three petition circulators knocking on their door in the same day.  Be sure to give your circulators lists of people in their assigned area who meet the requirements to be a petition signer (e.g. if your state says the person has to be a registered voter and member of your party to sign, give them a list so they know who those people are and where they should knock).

Getting Petitions Signed

Apart from getting their friends and neighbors who meet the requirements to sign the petitions, the best way to get petitions signed is for your circulators to go door-to-door.  They should go to each door, knock, and let the person know that they are collecting petitions to get you on the ballot.

They can make clear that signing the petition is not an endorsement of a candidate, or a promise to vote for that candidate, but just saying that you’d like that person to be allowed onto the ballot.  Double-check with the person to make sure that they meet the requirements for signing the petition.  After they sign, thank them, and if you have campaign literature, hand them a brochure or palm card.  Then, move on to the next house.

After Your Petitions are Signed

After you have completed your signature-gathering campaign, but before you turn in your petitions, be sure to make copies.  Take the copies and enter the information on each person who signed into a database.  You’ll want to reach out to those voters as prime potential supporters for your campaign.  Even though signing a petition doesn’t mean that person has to support you, often they do.  Even if they don’t support you right now, at least you know that they are engaged in the process and you have already had a positive experience with them – don’t waste that contact!

As soon as possible after entering everyone who signed the petitions into your database, send them each a thank you note with some additional information on your candidate.  Then, stay in regular touch with them over the course of the campaign, trying to get them involved.  Often, people who sign your petitions will not only vote for you, but also volunteer to help your campaign.  It doesn’t hurt to ask!

Photo Credit:  Brendan C