In order to have your name placed on the ballot in Boston, for the offices of Mayor or City Councillor, you must “pull papers,” and gather signatures from registered voters who reside in the area you seek to represent.
If you wish to run for Mayor, you’ll need 3000 certified signatures; if you are running for one of the 4 City Councillor At-Large (city-wide) seats, you must gather 1500. If you’re interested in one of the 9 District City Councillor seats, you’ll have to return 200 signatures (fewer in some districts) to the Boston Elections Department, during the signature period, traditionally running from 9am on a spring Tuesday until 5pm on the Tuesday three weeks following.
In 2009, when I ran At-Large, I found the signature gathering period to be a challenging task, even after receiving excellent and critical advice from John Donovan, who worked for the elections department at the time. As a first time candidate (sort of), I was fortunate to benefit from the generosity of a man who knows the mechanics of Boston politics, from the inside out. As a benefit to other first-timers, I distill his words into a few key points:
1. Gather signatures every day, and turn them in by 5pm, each day. When signature sheets are received by the elections department, they are numbered in the order they are received, and then certified in that order. For a race with a single winner, like Mayor, a voter’s signature is only supposed to count for 1 candidate, i.e. the first to turn in that voter’s signature. In the At-Large race, each voter can nominate and sign for 4 candidates, just as they can vote for 4 candidates in the preliminary (if necessary) and general elections.
2. Since many signatures will be disqualified (i.e. not certified), due to the voter being registered at a different address, or already having signed for another candidate, or not living in Boston (or in the Council District), or having a signature that is illegible or smudged: continue to gather signatures even after you have turned in enough to make the ballot. In 2009, after my first 3 sheets were processed, I found that about 75% of my signatures had been certified. I decided to set a goal of 2200, so that even if my signature success rate dropped below 70%, I would still likely make the ballot. On a sunny day, if things were going well, I would go an extra hour, because I found that rain made gathering signatures difficult, even under awnings.
3. Gather signatures in locations that offer access not just to a large quantity of Boston (or District) voters per hour, but also to:
a) voters who will be willing to consider signing and who are likely to vote in the fall. These include voters in Boston’s more politically oriented precincts, which can be easily discovered by comparing voter turnout numbers available from the elections department. The voters who sign your nomination papers may be the first with whom you interact, and you will learn a lot of useful information about what issues are currently important to the people who will ultimately be determining the outcome of the election. With their name and address, you can later contact them and appeal to them to vote for you.
b) voters who will definitely be registered to vote, already, at the address they write on the sheet (meaning their signature is unlikely to be disqualified). I tested several locations and found a few that were clearly superior in this regard, some of which attracted several candidates at one time. Some locations have their own “home-town” rules for who gets to stand where, or how many candidates are allowed to gather signatures at one time. Break these rules at your own risk!
4. Obtain a current list of Boston registered voters and, after photocopying and turning in each day’s sheets (some of which will be partially incomplete), cross off the signatures that clearly won’t count and verify the others. This will give you a better and earlier idea of which locations are working, and during what hours.
In 2009, unless I am mistaken, 22 people pulled papers to run for City Councillor At-Large and 15 made the ballot, more than enough to trigger a preliminary election in September, narrowing the field to the top 8 candidates. This year, so far, 11 people have pulled papers, so we can expect a field of only about 7.5 candidates. There will certainly be several District Council races with preliminary elections on Sep 26: Districts 1, 2 and 7 feature open seats and several serious candidates for each of those seats. Less clear is whether there will be preliminary votes for City Councillor At-Large, or even Mayor. I fully expect Tito to gather the 3000 (or 4400) signatures necessary to be nominated for the office of Mayor: but at least one more person would have to make the ballot, in order to force a prelim.