Local elections are about to get underway in New York for 2023 — and the first step in the campaigning process involves quite a bit of paperwork.
You may see it happening on your block. Would-be candidates in each of this year’s races — all 51 City Council seats and three district attorneys, among others — will get out on the streets and gather lots of signatures so they can be formally certified to make it onto the ballot for June’s primary.
This step of the process is called petitioning. But what does it mean to sign, and what should you know before you do? Let’s break that down.
So, what is petitioning? And who can sign a form?
Candidates running for office kick off their campaign by asking voters to sign designating petitions, which are forms nominating, or designating, that candidate for a political party’s ballot line for a particular office. This year, you’re likely to see this process happening for City Council seats, because redistricting opened up all those positions. But seats are also open for district attorney and Civil Court judge spots, among others.
When campaign volunteers come up to you with a petition, they’ll likely ask you whether you are:
- Registered to vote.
- Registered to vote in the party they’re petitioning for.
- Registered to vote in the party they’re petitioning for in the district the candidate is running in.
All three things have to be true for you to be eligible to sign that petition. So, for instance, a Democratic voter who is registered in New Jersey who just happens to be in Manhattan or Brooklyn for the day wouldn’t be able to sign a petition for a Democratic candidate for NYC’s City Council elections. (Well, they could, but it would not be counted as a valid signature in the event that another candidate tries to challenge those petitions, as often happens.)
Candidates need a minimum number of valid signatures to get added to the ballot in the primary election, which differs based on the office they are seeking. City Council seats need anywhere between 450 and 900 signatures (more on that later), District Attorney seats need 4,000, and Civil Court judge candidates need 1,500.
Here’s what that petitioning form looks like.
In the coming weeks until the end of March, you’ll likely see campaigners for candidates handing out forms for you to sign — traditionally, green for Democratic candidates and red for Republicans.
Other things to keep in mind:
- The information you write down has to match the information in your voter registration.
- You have to sign in blue or black ink for your signature to be considered valid.
- You can’t have signed another petition for the same office.
Most people don’t know that last part, said Jessica Haller, executive director of the New Majority NYC, a local political coalition. Haller herself has run for office previously, and remembered one voter who “saved” his petition signature for her.
You can, however, sign another petition for a different office. For instance, you can sign one candidate’s petition for a City Council seat and another petition for a District Attorney seat.
Is signing a petition promising to support someone? What should I know about the candidate before I sign?
Your signature is really nothing more than sanctioning a candidate’s right to run for office, experts told THE CITY.
“Signing a petition doesn’t indicate that you are endorsing the candidate or will vote for the candidate,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer in the city. “It just says ‘I believe that you should have the right to be on the ballot.’”
Before you sign, you can ask about the candidate’s positions and the offices for which they’re running. Haller said some good questions may include asking about their top priorities, what people and organizations have endorsed them, and their positions on issues that are important to you.
Signatures are not made public online. However, the physical petitions themselves are available at the city Board of Elections for anyone to view.
How many signatures does a petition need?
New York state election law says a City Council candidate needs 900 signatures — but the city’s charter says 450. Because campaign opponents will often challenge each other’s petitions, claiming they don’t have enough valid signatures, experts we spoke with said would-be City Council candidates should get at least 900. Some collect many more than that to reduce the chance of signatures being challenged and deemed invalid.
Why do candidates have to do this?
It’s a mark of the democratic process and an early testament to the support a candidate can muster, said Haller.
“You want people to work just hard enough to prove that they have communal support for their run; on the other hand, you don’t want to make it too hard that you close off and protect the process for just some elite group of incumbents,” she said. “Petitioning is the gate that our electoral system has established to demonstrate local support for a candidate.”
Should I volunteer to petition?
It’s a great way to make inroads into the local political process, experts say. You get to meet candidates, learn about their legislative priorities and perhaps meet other political candidates in your district or county.
“Citizens of the neighborhood should be aware how helpful that is to the democratic process and to the candidates that they want to support,” Haller said. “And if you’re interested in trying to understand deeper what the democratic process is, volunteering to help your candidate petition is a great way in.”
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