Petitioning for state office: what it is and how it works

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Bronx state Senate candidate Christian Amato, who’s running in newly created District 36 for the seat currently held by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, petitioning in City Island.
Photo courtesy of Amato for NY

If you’ve ever been approached by a stranger on a street corner, holding green sheets of paper and asking for your signature, chances are you’ve experienced petitioning in New York.

Petitioning is the process by which candidates for public office have a given time period to collect a certain number of signatures in order to get on the ballot for election day. 

As this year’s state primaries get underway, candidates have been hitting the streets across the city to collect enough signatures to see their names on the ballot this June. This year’s petitioning period began at the start of this month and officially ends April 7 – although most candidates try to file their signatures in advance of that date.

The current petitioning period and round of elections follows a redistricting process that concluded in January – it takes place once every decade after the U.S. Census. The redistricting, which was supposed to be done by a bipartisan commission but ended up in the hands of the Democratic Party controlled state legislature, greatly benefited Democrats trying to hold onto to a thin House majority in Washington and supermajorities in Albany.

Depending on the level of office a candidate is running for, the number of signatures required and petitioning rules can vary. For statewide offices – like governor, state comptroller or attorney general – candidates need to collect a minimum of 15,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Those signatures have to come from at least 100 (or 5%) of registered voters in one half of each congressional district around the state.

Candidates for statewide office can also get on the ballot without having to petition if they receive more than 25 percent of the vote at their party’s nominating convention. For example, Gov. Kathy Hochul doesn’t have to petition because an overwhelming majority of Democratic Party committee members voted for her in their convention last month. The same is true for U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R – Long Island), who’s likely to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination in June.

For offices tied to a specific district, like state Senate and Assembly, there’s no automatic way to get ballot access but the signature thresholds are much lower. Candidates running for state Senate must get at least 1,000 signatures, while those vying for an Assembly seat have to get half that number.

Yet, Bronx state Senate candidate Christian Amato – who’s running in a redrawn Senate district for the seat currently held by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi – says meeting the minimum required number of signatures is hardly enough to ensure a spot on the ballot.

“You want to collect, sort of the rule is, typically triple your objective,” the district 36 candidate said. “Because in the event that you’re challenged, as they start knocking off your signatures, having triple gives you like that nice buffer.”

Amato, a political strategist who ran City Counilwoman Amanda Farias’ (D – Bronx) campaign last year, is referring to how candidates often bring legal challenges to some of each other’s collected signatures in order to knock opponents off the ballot. Last week, Amato said he’s already halfway towards meeting his goal of 3,000 signatures.

But if collecting that many signatures wasn’t hard enough, candidates also have to make sure they’re coming from registered in-district voters of the same political party.

“You have to build the support of your registered Democrats in your election district,” Amato said. “Your community is working to put you on the ballot.”

Amato said his petitioning strategy is to mostly go door-to-door in buildings, instead of using other popular petitioning locations like street corners, subway stations or the outside of supermarkets.

“I try to avoid transient areas because you’re not getting clean signatures,” Amato said. “What I like doing is going door-to-door for a couple of different reasons.You’re getting cleaner data. You’re able to work with your field software and collect information and apply tags to the people you visit, which becomes useful when petitioning is over.”

In contrast, Iwen Chu – a Democrat who’s running unopposed for a newly created state Senate District in southern Brooklyn – said she’s petitioning anywhere and everywhere throughout her district.

“It’s the first time as a candidate that I’m on the ballot for myself,” Chu said. “So, I’m doing everything I can. In the morning, I’m in a subway in every neighborhood. I’m knocking on doors in the evening. And, we can go into the supermarket, busy intersections. Basically I just want to meet people and introduce myself.”

Chu, who was chief of staff for Assemblyman Peter Abbate (D – Brooklyn) for the past 10 years, would be the first Asian American to represent southern Brooklyn in Albany. 

Above all, Chu said she sees petitioning as a great voter education opportunity.

“People are actually eager to learn,” Chu said. “Some were like, ‘oh, are you against any incumbent?’ And I explained to them, ‘no, actually this is a brand new (district).’ And I explained how the district goes. They actually want to hear more. And that’s how we have the conversation. I introduce who I am. Why I’m running. What my background is. I have them check my website. So, it’s very positive for voter engagement.”

The state primary is June 28.