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It’s petition day! Getting signatures is hard — here’s what we (and the candidates) learned

Nominating petitions are due today for Philly’s Republican and Democratic candidates (candidates from non-major parties have more time, as they’re not in the May primary). Mayoral candidates need to submit at least 1,000 valid signatures and survive potential challenges to remain in the race. They had between Feb. 13 and March 10 to get it all done.

Yesterday, Billy Penn explained the very detailed process of how to run for office in the city. Today, we explain what it’s like to collect signatures.

Four of our staffers spent a combined total of seven hours Monday asking total strangers to sign our (completely fake) nominating petition. Spoiler alert: It’s hard to get signatures — and we set a pretty low bar.

Disclaimers

While legitimate candidates need a name, signature, address and date, we only asked for signatures. We were also pretty open about the motive behind our effort — proving how hard it is get people to sign — which made it easier to get signatures than if we had an actual political motive. Finally, we made absolutely no effort to verify the address or registration status of our signers. Candidates need signatures from registered voters within their own party. Ours was just an exercise in getting pen on paper.

And now, for the results…

One hour at Dilworth Park: Community Manager Shannon McDonald

Number of signatures: 30
Number of rejections: 5
Number of legible names: 15

My approach seemed to work with most people. I went for people who were seated, but not listening to headphones, and asked them if they would mind answering a strange question. Most were amused enough to listen, so I identified myself as a reporter trying to determine how difficult it is to get 1,000 signatures to run for mayor, so hey, would you mind signing my fake petition?

Two women told me the didn’t speak English and then carried on their conversation in English. I mean, at least wait for me to be out of earshot.

One woman who was far too interested in the game she was playing on her phone to really appreciate the nice weather just said “no” when I approached her. Point taken.

I stumbled upon a city employee who gave me a hot tip: Traffic Court! People are coming and going all day, but aren’t scheduled to return during the same week, so you won’t hit any repeats. On the other hand, not sure I want to spend my time talking to the unhappy people at Traffic Court.

One woman(?) who signed my “petition” was very likely underage, even though I asked her if she was eligible to vote. Her signature looks like a scribble, anyway.

What surprised me most is that only two people asked me for identification. I mean, what if I was lying when I said I wouldn’t use their signatures for anything?

Two hours in Rittenhouse Square: Reporter/Curator Anna Orso

Number of signatures: 53
Number of rejections: 20ish
Number of legible names: 21 

Running for mayor is basically the hardest thing I’ve done in weeks. It should be a new weight loss regimen that would be especially useful for people used to sitting in an office for large chunks of the day. For me, there was no secret to getting signatures other than my efforts to sound convincing and also trying not to get too close to people because I stepped in like 13 puddles and smelled weird.

I was actually surprised at how chill people were about giving their signature to a random person. What I did, basically,  was corner people while they were enjoying their Hip City Veg or having a smoke break on a bench in Rittenhouse Square. This provided for an excellent opportunity for me to explain what I was doing without them being able to run away. Ha!

From there, I gave each person my spiel that went something like, “Hey, I’m Anna Orso, and I’m a reporter with Billy Penn… [something about how we want to know how hard it is to run for mayor]… will you sign my totally fake and meaningless petition?” And lots of people did. A couple people even told me that they wanted to run for mayor for us. One man, who left me his phone number so we could “follow up,” said he wants to reduce parking tickets by 50 percent and send City Council salaries to the school district. OK! A man with a plan!

Some people straight up didn’t understand what we were doing and didn’t want to sign. Understandable. Other people were just like, please go away. It’s fine. I can be very intimidating. Rawr. One group of people who were way too hip for their own good told me that they wouldn’t sign because it wasn’t “scientific.” (Alright dude, I’m asking you to sign my legal pad, like of course it’s not scientific.)

What I did notice was an age discrepancy in the people who were willing to sign. Older folks for the most part were hesitant to sign, while in many cases people who seemed to be in their 20s were cool with signing their name to be part of our experiment. One guy even told me he would just sign 50 of his friends’ names, too. It’s the thought that counts?

However, there were two young people in the park Monday afternoon who maybe would have signed my petition, but I didn’t ask. They were feeding each other slices of baguette and sipping on bottled Italian sodas. I feared I might have barfed on them. Spring in Rittenhouse, people!

Two hours in Old City: Reporter/Curator Mark Dent

Number of signatures: 17
Number of rejections: 50ish
Number of legible names: 14

Listen to people who are trying to get your attention on the sidewalks. Like at least politely decline what they’re offering or asking for. Just don’t ignore them.

That is my new motto after hanging around in Washington Square and for a little while in Old City trying to convince people to stop and listen to our fake candidacy pitch. With most of the benches empty or kept in use by the same people, I had little option but to chat with people walking by who weren’t listening to music or on their cell phones. The result? Many blank stares, five seconds of listening and then walking away and plenty of unwillingness to sign a name for a fake mayoral run.

As Anna put it, running for mayor is freaking hard. Add the rejection, and standing around with a notepad hoping people will listen (even on the nicest day in months) feels brutal. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to get someone’s attention if you were campaigning for a specific, real candidate and had to convince someone to sign his or her name in support of Doug Oliver, Tony Williams, Lynne Abraham or whoever. Or even harder, as one lady told me after signing the petition, “Imagine being a Republican” and getting signatures. Yikes.

There was almost no rhyme or reason to the people who did sign. Young people were slightly more likely to sign than middle-aged or elderly, but not by much. Women and men signed equally.

I did notice one trend: I asked three people who were walking dogs to sign the petition, and all three of them did. The easiest way to load up on signatures for mayor is clearly finding a bunch of people who have dogs. Every serious candidate needs to hang out at Pop’s Playground Dog Park.

Two hours in three locations: Intern Jenine Pilla

Number of signatures: 68
Number of rejections: 15ish
Number of legible names: 25

Equipped with Billy Penn sunglasses, pens, stickers and business cards, I started my fake mayoral run in Logan Square. For my first attempt, I was met by three guys in backwards hats smoking cigars who, instead of offering a polite no to my pitch, berated me about the project and how I wasn’t raised in Philly. Not a good start considering I kinda wanted to wander back to the office and call it a day after that. It was a heavy blow and my patience immediately fell to nothing, but thankfully a group of medical students threw me a few signatures while running to catch a bus.

If I could say one thing, fake running for mayor was a real blow to the old self confidence. As Logan Square was a flop, I wandered to 30th Street Station, which wasn’t even half as fruitful as I had hoped. Trains were leaving, people were running and I was standing defeated next to a vending machine where I hadn’t even filled up a quarter of a page of signatures.

Then I saw it, the beacon of hope that I needed, cutting across the street in yellow and blue: “Drexel University.”  If I were running for mayor, I’d set up camp at every college across the city because students. When I walked on to Drexel’s campus the sun was high and those kids were pretty much waiting to listen to anything I had to say. They just got it. They got what I was doing and why I was asking them to sign my legal pad and they even offered horror stories of their own about a time they had to get 50 people to take a five minute survey.

The students rarely signed blindly, they asked questions and offered comments like “I’d imagine actually getting signatures in support of a viewpoint being much harder.” Word. Of the more than 40 people I approached on campus, only one declined, and he did so pretty politely.

One thing I learned: stick to the younger crowd. They will most likely give you that minute you need to explain yourself without all their preset judgements getting in the way.

Campaign staff report: Doug Oliver

“Getting a bunch of people in the same place at the same time,” worked for Oliver, Campaign Manager Mustafa Rashed told Billy Penn. But that doesn’t mean getting signatures was easy.

Oliver was able to get a lot of the signatures himself during his commute on the subway because he’s not holding a full-time job while campaigning. But Rashed said the time-consuming signature process can definitely be “a distraction” from other campaign matters. About 20 staffers spent five hours each circulating petitions, landing about 4,000 during the three-week petitioning period.

The weather was a challenge for sure, but Rashed also floated the idea of rethinking the entire signature process. What if candidates needed the signatures from the get-go, as part of the declaring and vetting process, rather than the campaigning process? Collecting signatures gets tougher as the weeks go on because candidates cannot get signatures from voters who’ve already signed another candidate’s petition. If you don’t get to voters right away, you’ve already lost them.

But the rules are the rules for now, and Rashed has one piece of advice for his future self, should he find himself campaigning again. “If I had to do this all over again, I’d be outside the Criminal Justice Center” talking to jurors. They all have one thing in common: they’re definitely registered voters.

Campaign staff report: Jim Kenney

Lauren Hitt, Kenney’s communications director, summed up the staff’s petition experience in one word: fortunate.

“Over 250 people volunteered their time” to circulate petitions, Hitt said, so things didn’t really feel too chaotic. Things got a little hectic Monday as the campaign worked to organize petitions, but volunteers were present even then.

Kenney submitted 10,070 signatures Monday and expects to file an addendum today.

As far as circulation strategy goes, Hitt said the campaign “left it to the volunteers.” Some went door to door, and others found success in large crowds. Though the weather in the final days of petitioning, most of the last three weeks has been marked by snow.

“Especially in the weather, we feel very fortunate to have had so much support,” Hitt said.

Campaign staff report: Anthony Hardy Williams

Staffer Barbara Grant submitted an email statement: “Gathering more than 10,000 signatures (with more still to come) is a huge collective effort of full time, part time and spare time campaign workers canvassing the city.

In addition to staff, we had a volunteer group of community leaders and everyday citizens who enabled us to reach into every ward in the city. We started collecting signatures on February 17(so a total of 4 weeks of wall to wall work). Our field operation was set up to collect petitions 12 hours per day, seven days a week. The scope of this kind of operation requires consistent monitoring, strong leadership, the willingness to be flexible and the ability to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Our team is made up of committed staff of all ages and backgrounds, but we are particularly proud of our millennials — whose enthusiasm carried our theme of One Philadelphia to all corners of the city and really engaged voters with Tony’s message. As you can see from the overwhelming response, representing all 66 wards, his message is resonating with voters from all across Philadelphia.”

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