Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Getting on the Ballot in Other Cities

In contrast to New York, most U.S. cities have nonpartisan elections for local office. But every municipality has its own quirks when it comes to how candidates get on a ballot.

To learn about New York's ballot access and the blood sport of ballot bumping, read New York's Election Labyrinth.

Some cities, according to Richard Winger, an expert on ballot access and the publisher of Ballot Access News, decide election laws for themselves. Others, like Newark, stick with their state's prescriptions for operating elections.

Winger says that generally the difficulty of getting on the ballot depends on whether the election system is partisan or nonpartisan. The fairer system, in Winger's view, is a nonpartisan one. He said he is "overwhelmingly in favor of a filing fee," instead of petition requirements, as the way for candidates to get on a ballot.

Party Politics

Philadelphia's ballot access laws are similar to New York's. The City of Brotherly Love has a closed primary system that allows only registered party members to run in the primary election. Candidates running as Democrats or Republicans for citywide office need to collect 1,000 signatures from members of their party within three weeks.

Independent candidates face a far higher hurdle. The number of signatures they have to collect must equal at least 2 percent of the winning candidate's vote total in the last election in the district where the candidate is running. For a citywide candidate -- where the "district" is the entire city -- independents need at least four times as many signatures as people running in a party primary. They have a few months to come up with all those names and can get people from any party to sign their petitions.

Like New York, petition challenges from rival candidates, which have to be submitted within the week after the filing deadline, are common in Philadelphia. However, according to Deputy City Commissioner Fred Voigt, candidates can amend petitions after a challenge has been brought, a process that New York does not have. For example, if an address on the petition is incorrect, the candidate can correct it, and the signature would be valid.

Candidates in Newark also must file petitions to get on a ballot and have about two and a half months to collect the required number of signatures. That number varies, depending on the election cycle. In the 2006 Newark mayoral race, candidates needed close to 1,200 signatures. In a New York mayoral race, candidates need 7,500 signatures. If you look at the two cities' requirements in proportion to its overall population, Newark office seekers have a tougher time. The total number of signatures Newark candidates need equals about 0.5 percent of its population, while New York candidates need signatures that amount to about 0.1 percent of the city's population.

Candidates file their petitions 54 days before an election. Rival candidates can challenge petitions, but like Philadelphia, candidates can amend "defective" petitions as long as they do not add signatures.

Officially Non-partisan

Chicago also requires petitions to get on a ballot. In its nonpartisan elections, candidates have 90 days to gather signatures. For the citywide offices of mayor, city clerk and city treasurer, office seekers need to get 12,500 valid voter signatures. Aldermen -- Chicago's City Council members -- need to collect signatures equal to at least 2 percent of the total vote cast in the last general election in their ward. For example, in 2007, candidates in ward 22 needed 67 signatures, while in ward 23, they had to have 306.

The procedures in Los Angeles and San Francisco differ markedly from those in New York. The State Constitution of California requires municipal and county elections to be nonpartisan, and candidates in both cities have 25 days to collect the obligatory number of signatures. Los Angeles candidates can pay a filing fee to reduce the number of signatures needed, while in San Francisco they can pay a fee to avoid having to collect any at all.

The filing fee is 2 percent of the salary of the office sought. So a candidate for mayor -- a job paying $252,886 a year -- can pay $5,058 to get on the ballot or he or she can collect 10,116 petition signatures, which is more than the required amount needed in the much larger city of New York. A candidate also can use a combination of petitions and fees, with each signature reducing the fee by 50 cents. There are no petition challenges from rival candidates, and the San Francisco Department of Elections verifies each signature.

Candidates in Los Angeles also have the option of paying a fee to reduce the amount of petitions collected, although they all must submit some signatures. Candidates for office can pay a $300 filing fee and submit between 500 and 1,000 signatures. Office seekers who do not want to pay a fee must submit between 1,000 and 2,000 signatures to the City Clerk. There are no petition challenges from rival candidates.

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