It’s an exciting time of year: petitioning time!

Huh, what’s that?

As New Yorkers, we’re used to people approaching us on the street asking for something. But if you’ve been confronted recently by clipboard-carriers asking you to sign a petition to get someone on the ballot, that’s because it’s petition time, the semi-official beginning of campaign season in New York.

So what’s the deal with the petitions?

In order to run in a New York election, candidates need to collect signatures from people who can vote in that election. That means if someone is running as a Democrat for Mayor of New York City, they need to collect signatures from Democrats in New York City. If a candidate is running as an independent, they can collect signatures from anyone who is registered to vote in the general election.

The exact number of signatures varies based on the number of voters in the primary. The requirement is no more than 5% of the number of registered voters eligible to vote for that office in the party primary. However, because that would be a huge number for certain offices, there are lower signature requirements for most positions: from 500 to run for State Assembly all the way up to 15,000 to run for Congress or a statewide office.

Office Number of Signatures Needed
State Assembly 500
NYC City Council 450
State Senate 1,000
NYC Borough President 2,000
NYC Citywide Office (Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller) 3,750
US House 15,000
Statewide Office (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General) 15,000
US Senate 15,000

Numbers from GoGrassroots. Note: the original version of this table included outdated numbers for NYC offices.


However, the number of signatures actually needed is much higher. Campaigns generally figure that only one-third of their signatures will actually be valid. Many of the people who sign a petition won’t actually live in the district or aren’t actually registered to vote for the party whose petition they are signing. Some signatures won’t include required information like an apartment number or just won’t be legible. In addition, petition carriers are typically volunteers or young people and they might make mistakes, too, like forgetting to actually sign their part of the petition.

Who actually collects these petition signatures?

Campaigns spend a lot of time and money recruiting volunteers and hiring people to go around collecting petition signatures. They also work with local party clubs. In fact, most Democratic and Republican clubs are most active during this time and devote most of their energies to helping the candidates and elected officials they support get on the ballot. Generally, clubs and other party groups will carry a petition that lists several candidates for different offices and each signature counts for all of those candidates.

After the signatures are collected, party lawyers will spend days going over the petitions. They’ll try to identify any issues and fix them, adding missing apartment numbers, finding places where information is missing, and otherwise preventing any issues.

What happens if there’s a problem with the petition?

No one necessarily checks the petition; unless there is a challenge, the petition is presumed valid. That means people can sometimes get on the ballot without actually collecting the requisite number of signatures. However, after petitions are filed there are a few days for anyone to challenge petitions; campaigns will sometimes challenge opponents’ petitions. They’ll then deploy lawyers to go over those petitions for any problems and if the problems are serious enough, candidates are sometimes kicked off the ballot.

How much time do they have to collect signatures?

Petitioning takes place over a six-week period from early June to early July. This year (2017), petitioning started last week, June 6, and campaigns need to file their petitions between July 10 and 13.

In actual practice, campaigns will stop going after petitions in early July, generally just after Independence Day, so that they have enough time to assemble all the petitions and fix errors.

How do they actually collect the signatures?

There are two main ways campaigns will collect petitions: door-knocking (also called canvassing) and catching people on the street.

  • Canvassing is much more directed. Volunteers or paid campaign staff will get a list of registered voters and knock on their doors to ask them to sign a petition. This is much more efficient since campaigns know that they are asking people who are eligible to vote and since the canvasser has a list, they can cross-reference the signature to Board of Elections records to make sure that apartment numbers and other information are correct. However, this is time-consuming and higher-pressure. Generally, campaigns only canvass if they are trying to get on the ballot of a third-party (like the Conservative or Working Families Party) with few voters or if they are having problems collecting signatures other ways.
  • Alternatively, volunteers can stand on a street corner and ask passers-by to sign. Campaigns use a lot of strategy to picking which streetcorners to station volunteers on. They want places that get lots of foot traffic from people who actually live in the district and will be eligible signers. That’s why campaigns often deploy volunteers to subway stops at rush hour–there’s a good chance someone taking the subway in the morning or evening is going home. The same logic also applies to events: events like a block party attract plenty of locals who live in the area; an event that draws a crowd from a wider area (like a parade) probably has too many ineligible voters to be worthwhile.

What’s up with the green (or red) sheets?

For whatever reason, state law used to require that each party use a specific color for their petitions. Democrats were required to use green, Republicans cherry red, and the Conservative Party used grey.

Recently, state legislators changed the law to make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot and removed that requirement. However, as political consultant Jerry Skurnik explains: “Each party keeps using the colors because they think that people who previously signed petitions won’t do it if the petition is a different color than they are used to signing.”

Can I sign multiple petitions?

People are only allowed to sign one petition per office. That means someone can sign a petition for a City Councilmember, and a petition for a Mayor. However, they can’t sign two petitions for different candidates for City Council. While it rarely happens that a signature is challenged on that basis, if the signature were to be challenged, the second petition signature would be rejected.

Any other questions about petitioning?

Comment below and we’ll answer them!


Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Posted by Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein is the founder of ShakingNews.

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