06/17/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

How Those Names Get On Your Ballot

Candidates know about it. Election lawyers know about it. Political insiders do too. Yet, I've learned over the past few years that in this otherwise politically savvy town, ballot access still remains foreign to many. Indeed, New Yorkers still assume that candidates' names "magically appear" on the ballot.

As I was standing on the streets of Manhattan last week - the start of petitioning season in New York City -- attempting to gather the required signatures for my local candidates to have their names placed on the ballot for the Democratic primary, most passersby seemed to have no familiarity with or working knowledge of the petitioning process; one man who refused to sign a petition announced "let the candidates get on the ballots themselves!" He left before I could explain how the process works.

Article 6 of New York State's Election law governs the nomination and designation of candidates for election to public office or party position. For statewide office, a candidate may be designated by majority vote of a political party's state committee. Nominations for Justice of the State Supreme Court are made at a judicial district convention, at which party delegates vote.

However, all other candidates must collect a specified number of signatures on designating petitions in order to have their names placed on the ballot. This includes candidates for citywide office -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate -- who must get 7,500 valid signatures on their petitions, candidates for borough president who must secure 4,000 signatures, candidates for the city council, who must get 900, candidates for the state assembly and senate, who require 500 and 1,000 signatures respectively, and candidates for judge of the civil court, who must get 1,500 signatures.

The law prescribes the form of the designating petitions and mandates that signatures can only be obtained in the 37 days before the last day to file designating petitions for the primary election. For the signatures to be valid, a petition must bear the name and residence address of the signer, as well as the date when the signature was affixed. The signer must also be a duly registered voter of the same political party as the candidates on the petition, and must be a resident of the political subdivision in which the office or position is to be voted for. The signature must also be witnessed by a person who is also an enrolled voter of the candidate's political party.

This system was created to democratize the election process rather than continuing the system of allowing party leaders to control which candidates are placed on the ballot.These ballot access rules were also enacted so that candidates show that they have some support and to make sure the ballot is not filled with frivolous candidates. As others have said, this process is local democracy in action and should be greatly valued by our citizenry.

However, the task of getting on the ballot is a difficult one to be completed in a short amount of time especially since many people are unaware of this process and are either apathetic or too busy to partake in it. Further, unlike the petitioning process in other boroughs, which includes house calls to obtain the required signatures, in Manhattan signers must be caught on their way to work or home, while shopping or running errands with their children, or while doing any of the number of things we are all rushing around doing.

Another problem is the expensive and time-consuming petition challenge process during which a candidate's opponent will focus on minor mistakes or technical violations in order to invalidate signatures and potentially keep a candidate off the ballot. Thus, adding to the difficulty of the process, to discourage legal challenges, candidates typically collect at least three times the number of required signatures.

It has been noted that our system favors incumbents who have party backing, built-in support or the funds to hire staff who will obtain the signatures and to defend any petition challenge. That is why experts, such as Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election lawyer at Stroock, Stroock and Lavan LLP, have suggested that we allow candidates to pay a modest fee to get on the ballot or allow a candidate's name on the ballot if he or she "has raised a certain sum of money from a designated number of voters in a particular district." Others have suggested that we reduce the number of signatures required to appear on the ballot or permit the use of electronic signatures via the internet, thereby allowing people who are interested in being involved in the process to do so on their own time and in a relaxed setting. Yet, reform efforts have repeatedly failed, some say because incumbents will never alter the current system which benefits them by making it difficult for political novices to get on the ballot.

But, before we can truly consider reform we need a massive annual information campaign so that our fellow citizens come to know that democracy is not just about making a choice at the ballot box, but also about giving ourselves more choices when casting a ballot. Lending our signatures to these designating petitions is an important role we can play in local democracy, but first we must all be made aware of it. That is why I believe that each year in early June all of the local newspapers should remind us of this significant duty and encourage all to get involved.

So, if you see me on the street with a petition this season, I hope that you will either sign it or be making an informed decision not to do so. Most of all, I hope you understand the role you can play in making candidates appear on your ballot.