New York’s procedure for candidates to get their names on the election ballot is one of the more onerous in the country, critics say. Candidates running for office this summer told City Limits that while they enjoyed hitting the streets to speak with voters, they likewise described the petitioning process as “archaic,” “exhausting,” “grueling” and a “burden.”
For six weeks starting March 1, Brian Robinson spent most of his days traversing the neighborhoods of New York’s 10th Congressional District, which (previously) stretched from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to south Brooklyn.
The self-described moderate Democrat was vying to get his name on the ballot in this summer’s Congressional election, and as required by New York election law, he needed the support of at least 1,250 voters in his party and district to sign what’s called a designating petition. He and a team of about 60 campaign workers and volunteers traveled all across the district, he said, making their pitch and collecting signatures.
“Being out every day, rain, shine, doesn’t matter. It was freezing a couple of days. I was just happy to be out there,” said Robinson, who called the process “exhilarating.” “It’s furious. And it’s fun. And there’s a lot of adrenaline, but it’s also—it’s exhausting for the people involved.”
It paid off. In mid-April, Robinson got word that the Board of Elections had approved his designating petitions, meaning he’d landed a spot on the planned June 28 primary ballot.
But then a judge last month tossed out New York’s Congressional and State Senate District maps and ordered a special master to draw up new ones, throwing the state’s election season into chaos. Robinson faced not only the prospect of entirely new district boundaries, but—briefly—the possibility that he might have to do the whole petitioning process again.
That didn’t happen. The court instead set two upcoming primary dates, and ruled that candidates who’d already qualified for the ballot under the old district lines could remain eligible for the newly-set Aug. 23 contest without having to collect signatures again. It also opened another petitioning window for those who wanted to jump in the ring for the new State Senate and Congressional zones, who have until this Friday to canvas for their own batch of signatures.
So while Robinson is facing a longer campaign season and a slew of new rivals for the freshly redrawn district 10—including former Mayor Bill de Blasio, State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera—he’s relieved that at least he’s done petitioning.
“I’m just happy I’m already on the ballot. It was quite the process,” he said.
New York’s procedure for candidates to get their names on the election ballot is one of the more onerous in the country, critics say. Hopefuls must collect a set number of unique signatures from voters—for major party candidates, voters registered to their respective party—within a strict six-week window. Even after hitting that threshold, rival campaigns can challenge and object to another candidate’s submitted petitions on a number of fronts, scrutinizing whether the accompanying cover sheet is properly formatted or a collected signature matches the one on the voter rolls.
Candidates interviewed for this story said that while they enjoyed hitting the streets to speak with voters, they likewise described the petitioning experience as “arcane,” “exhausting,” “grueling” and a “burden.” It’s a process that favors candidates with name recognition and bigger campaign war chests, who can afford the cadre of volunteers, paid canvassers and election lawyers that make hitting the ballot marks an easier lift.
“It doesn’t reward people who are amateurs. Which is unfortunate, because we would like to…not have unreasonable barriers to people getting on the ballot,” said Rockland County State Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick. But, he added, “it does at least show that a candidate has to have some community support.”
Alternative methods also have their pitfalls, he points out: A special election underway in Alaska to replace the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, for example, has close to 50 candidates on its ranked choice ballot.
“That doesn’t help voters make informed choices when you’ve got 50 candidates on the ballot,” said Reichlin-Melnick. “There has to be a threshold. The question is, what should it be?”
An uphill battle for non-incumbents
“New York State has the most confusing, stringent and needless petition requirements for ballot access, which are used to keep candidates off the ballot and thereby limit voter choice,” then-State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wrote in 2001, part of a “comprehensive analysis” his office produced on local election laws at the time. “Too many signatures are required, too little time is given to gather these signatures, and viable alternatives used in other states are ignored. New York’s detailed technical rules result in lengthy administrative challenges and litigation.”
More than 20 years later, experts say those same issues persist, and that the petitioning process may have gotten even more challenging in the time since. “I’ve noticed across the board… that a lot of people are having more trouble than they used to have,” said Sarah Steiner, an attorney who specializes in election law.
In previous decades, New York was home to “a much more robust network of political clubs, Democratic and Republican,” that provided convenient venues for petitioning, in contrast to the teams of campaign workers, often paid, who now canvas the streets each election season asking strangers for signatures.
New York’s decision in 2019 to move its state primary from September to June also moved the petitioning window from summer into late winter/early spring, meaning candidates and campaign workers must contend with worse weather and fewer people out in public. The pandemic didn’t make the process any easier.
“People are not opening doors, you can’t stop them as much on the street,” Steiner said. “It’s a time-consuming process. It takes a lot of human capital and costs a lot of money.”
Incumbents, who tend to have more of that money as well as name recognition, will inevitably fare better.
“Candidates who have more material resources are able to pay for canvassers, they have county support,” said David Alexis, a Democratic Socialist who’s running for State Senate in Brooklyn’s District 21, which requires 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
Among his strategies for taking on incumbent Sen. Kevin Parker: an early start. Alexis has been campaigning since last summer, allowing him time to amass hundreds of volunteers who were able to hit the ground running when the petitioning period kicked off in March, he said.
That’s the same approach taken by Democrat Brittany Ramos DeBarros, who’s facing off against Max Rose in the primary for Staten Island’s 11th Congressional district, a seat currently held by Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. As a first-time challenger, Ramos DeBarros said she “spent a year putting in the groundwork,” before the actual work of getting on the ballot began.
“A lot of people think that you have to have a lot of money to put up big numbers, because traditionally, when people petition, they’ll have a lot of paid petitioners. There are even firms that they call petition mills, or signature mills, that people will hire for tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “That’s one way to do it. But another way to do it is to be building a campaign that a lot of people see themselves in.”
She dispatched around 1,000 volunteers the very first day of the petitioning window, seeking out high-density spots and events: a farmers market, the Park Slope food co-op, Grand Army Plaza, or near schools following drop-off time. “A lot of bang for our buck,” she explained.
That might not work for every candidate in a city like New York City, where registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
“If you’re a Democrat, pretty much you can collect signatures anywhere,” said Sam Pirozzolo, a Republican running for State Assembly in Staten Island’s 63rd District, which requires candidates to collect 500 signatures for ballot access. “If you’re a Republican, it’s a little bit more complicated because not everybody is Republican.”
For that reason, he says, he and his team focused on collecting signatures door-to-door, to specifically target addresses of registered Republicans—better odds than approaching people at random on a corner.
Third-party candidates now face the toughest petitioning requirements in New York. In 2019, a commission put together under then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to establish a public financing system for state elections also significantly raised the threshold for independent parties to maintain their automatic ballot line, and upped the number of signatures they need to get on the ballot through petitioning.
Independent candidates seeking a statewide office like governor must now collect at least 45,000 signatures to qualify, up from 15,000 before the 2019 rule change. Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, still only need to meet the 15,000-signature threshold—what Green Party candidate Gloria Mattera called an “undemocratic” and “two-tiered” system.
“Suppressing smaller parties, and choices, is a form of voter suppression,” said Mattera, who is running for lieutenant governor alongside Howie Hawkins, who’s running for governor. The Green and Libertarian parties have filed a joint lawsuit seeking to reverse the 2019 ballot access changes.
Even that previous 15,000-signature requirement was “not easy” in the six-week span allowed for petitioning, Mattera said. What’s more, candidates realistically need to collect many more signatures than the actual rules require, to fend off potential objections from the public or a rival campaign.
“When somebody says, ‘Well, I need 500 signatures to run for Assembly,’ I tell them, ‘Right. You should get 2,000,” said Steiner.
Anyone can object to a candidate’s petitions to get on the ballot—and there are lots of reasons for which signatures can be deemed invalid, including some “very arcane, frankly, kind of ridiculous reasons,” like a voter accidentally writing down the wrong date, Sen. Reichlin-Melnick said.
This is the part of the process where election lawyers are often needed, either to fend off challenges to their own candidate’s signatures or to object to another campaign’s. That’s another resource incumbents are likely to have easier access to, and funding for.
Reichlin-Melnick and State Sen. Rachel May sponsored legislation during the most recent legislative session to make that part of the process less burdensome by requiring boards of elections to “construe the law as broadly as possible,” and only invalidate signatures in response to an objection “if the identity of the owner is reasonably ascertainable, and there’s no suggestion that fraud is involved.”
“Obviously, it makes sense that if somebody had signed the petition who isn’t a registered voter, or they don’t live in the district that they’re signing a petition for, or there was fraud concern…of course you don’t want those signatures to count,” Reichlin-Melnick said. But small technical errors shouldn’t prevent someone from running for office, he argues.
Additionally, the bill—which failed to pass before the end of session last week—would have granted local boards of elections the ability to reject a candidate’s petition if they don’t have the minimum number of signatures required.
That doesn’t happen now: BOEs will accept a petition on its face without actually checking how many signatures it contains, unless a member of the public challenges it. “They just don’t have the bandwidth, you know, to go through every signature, so they don’t,” May said, “unless the signatures get challenged.”
May also proposed a different change: letting candidates collect signatures virtually. A bill she introduced during the most recent session would require the BOE to create a secure online system where voters could sign petitions, modeled after one in use in Arizona. It wouldn’t replace in-person petitioning, but supplement it, so candidates would have more flexibility.
Not everyone can go door-to-door collecting signatures, May points out, including some older New Yorkers or those living with a disability. “I don’t think we should be putting barriers to whole classes of people for getting on the ballot that rely on your ability to to get around,” she said.
Collecting signatures is also a different experience in suburban and rural areas, May adds. “It’s not like, especially in February, you can stand on a street corner and expect a lot of people to be walking by and willing to stop and sign a petition.”
Some have suggested doing away with the petitioning process altogether, like by setting a nominal monetary filing fee to qualify for the ballot instead—what would likely cost much less than the current system does, a recent Daily News oped argues.
Or giving candidates and campaigns a longer time frame to gather signatures, instead of the frenzied six weeks.
“So we could spend more time doing other types of community outreach, really getting to know the district in other ways aside from, you know, short conversations and then ‘Please sign,’” said Robinson. “Because it ultimately really makes the process transactional.”
This story was produced as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship, with support from Center for Community Media at CUNY Newmark’s Graduate School of Journalism.