[Alex White (once G, now D) outside Boldo’s Armory. Photo: David Kramer 4/13/21]
Last month, Rochester School District President Van White asked if I would gather petitions for his Monroe County Court candidacy. Van is a friend, fellow Brighton High School alum and contributes to Talker. I agreed.
I soon realized I did not fully understand the process. For example, why can people only sign the petition of one candidate (or more if the office has multiple slots)? To learn more, I turned to Alex White, owner of Boldo’s Armory on 891 Monroe Avenue.
Over the years, Alex has run many times for public office on the Green Party line, and gathered plenty of signatures.
To Alex’s dismay, after New York State altered its election rules, the Green Party failed to win enough votes in the 2020 elections to automatically qualify for the 2021 ballot.
Essentially, New York State no longer recognizes the Green Party as a political party. As Alex notes, the state did not even send the Greens its updated CD explaining election guidelines. Alex’s only viable recourse was to register as a Democrat and enter the party’s primary for City Council. The new (D) notwithstanding, Alex champions the same policies he has championed since entering politics.
Alex and I sat down for a conversation.
Talker: In a nutshell, what is a primary? How do primaries work step by step?
White: A good way to think about primaries is this: Political parties are not public entities but private organizations. Parties are like social clubs choosing their leaders as they see fit. Mostly, political parties follow the rules outlined — but not necessarily mandated — by New York State.
At state-level and local-level primaries, registered voters select a candidate they believe should be a political party’s candidate for elected office to run in the general election. Convention delegates can also be chosen. New York uses a closed primary process limited to registered party members. People who are not a member of a particular party can run in that party’s primary if the chair of that party signs off on a document saying it is okay.
The nuts and bolts of the process is: (1) The petition itself. Candidates can use templates from the NYS website or create their own. All petitions require a valid signature and signers can only sign for one candidate. The petitioner must personally witness the signing and be enrolled in the party for which they are gathering signatures and a duly qualified voter in the State of New York, which itself is limiting. (2) Petitions are submitted to the County Board of Election which does a cursory review and provides a receipt. (3) Any person has a three business day period to file a general complaint against any candidates’ petition. (4) Filers get three business days to then file a specific objections to specific signatures, including witness signatures. (5) The candidate whose petition is challenged gets three business days to contest. (6) The Board of Elections then holds a hearing to determine the validity of each objection. (7) If any challenges are upheld so that an insufficient number of valid signatures remain, the candidate is disqualified. (8) If enough valid signatures remain, the candidate is officially on the ballot. (9) The primary is held.
Talker: As discussed, New York State sets the basic rules for primary elections. But, if political parties are private organizations, why do they need to follow those rules?
White: Political parties follow the rules because the State provides voting infrastructure that would be cumbersome or expensive for a party to replicate. The municipalities pay for all the apparatus necessary to run an election: election machines, staff to oversee the use of the machines and locations to place them.
Parties get a lot in return for agreeing to follow the State rules. Theoretically, a party could run its own primary election by its own rules, but doing so could be difficult and unwieldy.
Talker: What is the rationale for the New York State rules? Why does the State limit the number of petitions people can sign and set a minimum number of signatures for qualification?
White: The basis of the NYS rules is the idea that the State only wants serious candidates who have clear public support. So the signature process shows candidates have people who support them and that candidates are willing to do the work of the office if they win. The State does not want to run an election filled with non-viable candidates.Talker: You said if you could set the primary rules of the Democratic Party, you would maintain the “sign only for one candidate rule.” Why? Also, what is your thinking process when determining the minimum number of signatures to qualify for the primary ballot?
White: While it might seem that this rule limits the possible number of candidates, it still allows there to be, without a problem, ten or so candidates per office. Also, if there are multiple seats, like for school board or city council, one can sign for how ever many seats are open. Furthermore, as most people collect petitions by going door to door, even if two candidates knocked on the same doors, they would mostly get different signatures, as only around one in ten doors are answered.
As for the minimum number of signatures, the number needed should be high enough to show you are serious, but not too high to make it impossible for a minimum of two people to reach the total. We don’t want the proverbial guy with a boot on his head and only one signature, his, on the ballot.
This total would be based upon how many weeks allowed for signature collection. I would set a maximum of 100 signatures per week as this shows organization and seriousness on the part of the candidate. In smaller districts where this maximum is harder to reach, I think 3% of registered voters is sufficient. In addition, the number should not be so high that disabled persons who might have difficulty collecting signatures are not locked out of the process.Talker: You say there are basically two signature gathering strategies candidates utilize: “the deep sea trawler approach that casts as wide a net as possible” vs. “the methodical river angler who seeks to catch just the kind of fish he wants.”
White: As you phrase it, that is a clever analogy. Either you get a list of all registered voters from the Board of Elections and then determine people who can sign for you. You make a list of these people’s addresses, and then go door to door. This is the river angler approach: you hope that 90% or more of your signatures will be valid.
Or, the trawler approach is to visit places where lots of people are, like public markets, festivals, or the bus terminal, and get all the signatures you can. Sure, two thirds of them may be invalid; for example, the person is not registered in the required area or party. But who cares as long as you can get so many signatures that enough will be valid.Talker: The petition signing process seems like kind of a free for all. What ethical obligations do think candidates have? Is there room for cheating?
White: I believe I am absolutely obligated to tell anyone who asks that they can only sign one petition. Although no one would know, I strictly follow the rule that I must witness the person signing the petition. For example, people can not sign for their spouse or older children. One time a man whose wife was ill asked if he could sign for her. He can’t, so I entered the house and watched from a reasonable distance.
I don’t feel the need to ask if people are registered for my party because often people are not sure. Many people think that signing my petition obligates them to vote for me. If they ask, I assure them they are not in any way obligated to vote Alex White. Signing simply says it’s ok for me to be on the ballot.
Instances of mischief have occurred. One candidate who will be nameless clearly never went to certain homes. Instead, he filled out the sheets by himself and forged the signatures. This fraudulent practice is a both a crime and should disqualify the candidate in the minds of all voters.