Should a candidate for mayor have to collect more signatures to get on the ballot than a candidate running for governor? Should a candidate running for a council at-large seat have to collect more signatures than someone seeking a seat in the state legislature?
Thanks to one of those “only in New Jersey” quirks in the law, that is apparently the case.
So far, five people have picked up petitions to run for mayor in Jersey City this May, according to the website for the City Clerk’s office. Another 12 potential candidates have picked up petitions to run for the three at-large seats on the City Council.
To qualify for the ballot, the mayoral and council at-large candidates will need to submit to the clerk 1,331 valid petitions – or one percent of registered voters in Jersey City – by March 11. And, realistically speaking, candidates actually have to exceed this minimum threshold since it is inevitable that some petitions will be tossed out or could be challenged.
To get on the ballot, mayoral candidates Jerramiah T. Healy and Steven Fulop will need 1,331 petitions. Gov. Christopher Christie will only need 1,000 the next time he runs. Does that seem fair?
“The way the law is written, it favors people with organizations,” said Jersey City Clerk Robert Byrne, who said he already foresees that some candidates this year will have trouble qualifying for the ballot. “The statute specifies a minimum [number of signatures required], but it doesn’t have a maximum. For people running for City Council, the statute should something like, ‘Shall not exceed the number needed to run for state Senate.’”
Part of the problem, Byrne said, is that municipal elections in Jersey City come just months after presidential elections, which usually see a spike in new voter registrations. Since mayoral and at-large candidates have to collect petitions that are equal to one percent of the city’s registered voters, this spike adds to an already challenging situation.
The bar is much lower for people who plan to run for one of the council’s six ward seats. They need only 189 to 261 valid petitions to qualify for the ballot, depending on their ward.
“But I think anyone who is running for mayor or one of these at-large seat is in for a lot of work these next few weeks,” Byrne said. Even for incumbents, he insists, “It’s still not easy. It’s still volume.”
Also, several potential candidates – including Ward F City Councilwoman Diane Coleman, at-large Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr., at-large Councilwoman Viola Richardson, Esther Winter, Richard Boggiano – either won their current seats or last ran during a special election. Special elections require lower petition thresholds than regular elections.
Candidates: No sweat
The candidates themselves seem unconcerned, however.
Coleman, who won her seat after running in a special election in November, said she already has recent experience collecting signatures for petitions and has already met the challenge of collecting the petitions she will need to qualify for the May ballot.
“When I ran last year, I wanted to make sure I had more than enough, so there wouldn’t be any problems and I had more than the qualifying number of petitions,” said Coleman. “I had a lot [of petitions] for the special election, just like I plan to get a lot on this election.”
To qualify for the ballot in Ward F candidates will need 261 valid petitions.
Lavarro, who won his current seat in a special election held in November 2011, also said he doesn’t expect to have any problems collecting petitions this year.
“It’s challenging, but we can do it,” Lavarro said. “I think for the special election I got close to 2,000 petitions, and that was on my own, not with a whole team. So, I don’t think there will be any problems.”
As an at-large candidate, Lavarro will need at least 1,331 valid petitions to qualify for the ballot in May.
Lavarro and Coleman are both running on mayoral candidate Steven Fulop’s slate and expect to tap into the grassroots organization he has built up over the past eight years, in addition to their own networks.
Coleman is a well-known activist in Ward F who has for several years run the nonprofit organization Building an Empire. Lavarro, the first Asian American elected to the Jersey City Council, is expected to pull significant support from the Filipino and larger Asian communities.
At least one prospective candidate, Esther Wintner, admitted the bar for at-large candidates is high – but said she is she is taking a “pragmatic approach” to collecting petitions. Wintner, who previously ran in the special election for the Ward B council seat in 2010, picked up from the clerk’s office petitions for both Ward B, where she lives, and at-large.
For now, she said she will concentrate on collecting the required petitions needed to run in Ward B. If she has enough time, she said she may consider running for an at-large seat instead and try to collect the 1,331 needed for the citywide seat.
“The first time I ran I needed 100 signatures. This time around I need 202, so I need twice as much. The biggest obstacle has been the weather, because going out now, it’s very cold and as a candidate hopeful, you get tired a lot quicker,” said Wintner. “But we have until March 11, so I’m okay with that. Right now, I’m going for the 210 signatures and if I get the 210 and I have enough time, I’ll go for the 1,331.”
Wintner, who is running independently, will only be able to run for one seat and will have to decide between running for Ward B or running at-large.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.