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Nominating petitions are due tomorrow for Philly’s mayoral candidates — just one of several steps required to be a legitimate candidate and appear on the ballot.

How many steps exactly? Eight? Twenty-six? It’s really hard to tell. The process is so complicated and unclear that — and we are not even making this up — the Ethics Board and the City Commissioners have been working together on exactly this kind of guide for candidates. Because even some candidates don’t understand the ins and outs of the election process. As City Commissioner Al Schmidt pointed out, “It’s a very simple process. Once you’ve been through the process.”

Which is why Billy Penn presents below the guide to running for office in Philadelphia. We sort of set up a quasi-candidacy to experience for ourselves how much work goes into getting on the ballot — right down to collecting signatures.

How do I declare my candidacy?

There are two ways to declare your candidacy with the city: Make a public announcement, or file a form. Even if you choose to do the former first, you still need to submit some basic information to the Philadelphia Board of Ethics within three days. But before you can do any of that, you have to answer to the Commonwealth. Municipalities take cues from the State Election Code, so candidates need to register there first.

So let’s say you stand in Dilworth Park and announce to everyone that you’re running for mayor. Congratulations! You just declared. You have 72 hours to provide the Ethics Board your committee information.

Hold up. A committee?

Yeah. State law says you need a chair person and a treasurer, and information about where the bank account is held. So not only do you need a committee and not only do you need to provide that information to the Ethics Board, you also need to file a registration statement with the Commonwealth. Most candidates set up the committee before declaring.

What if I change my mind?

So if you publicly declared candidacy and then realized all the work that goes into running for office and said, “Screw it, I change my mind” … you’re kind of off the hook. “We’re accommodating and flexible to an extent.” Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer said. The board is too busy enforcing policies for serious candidates to go after someone who got in over their head and then backed out. But if you publicly declare your candidacy and continue to solicit support and raise money without providing the board with the necessary information, you can expect trouble.

But why do I have to provide so much information just to get started?

First of all, if you’re gonna be mayor, you’d better get used to complicated processes and multiple signature requests. But really, the information is necessary to keep elections honest and keep voters informed. Consider the example Creamer provided of the 2007 election. There were 79 candidates for city office and 57 of those were for the 17 Council seats. The Ethics Board needs to know who’s in the game and how to contact candidates’ committees. And the burden is on the candidate to provide that information.

Fine, what else do I have to file?

There are forms like whoa. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania needs a candidate affidavit (though it gets filed through the city) that basically says which office you’re running for, as well as a statement of financial interests and campaign finance reports.

The statement of financial interest is about a candidate’s personal finances. The campaign finance reports, due multiple times over the course of the election cycle, show money in and money out for the campaign. Finance reports must first be filed as paper copies to the City Commissioners. Then you must file the same report electronically to the Ethics Board, and the affidavit from the electronic form should also be filed to the Department of Records.

What if I forget to file something?

This isn’t uncommon, but it’s not recommended. Campaign finance reports come with pretty hefty fines. A missed deadline will cost you $250 per day, as Ethics Board Director of Enforcement Michael Cooke explained. There’s a maximum penalty of $2,000 for the first 30-day period, then $1,000 for each subsequent 30-day period. The penalty is the only sanction under city law, but Pennsylvania law says a candidate cannot take his or her seat until outstanding fines are paid.

“If someone refuses to file their report, we would go to court,” Cooke said. It happened to Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., D-4th, after the 2007 election.

Is that it?

Oh hells no. There’s the small matter of nominating petitions — the forms candidates circulate asking voters to sort of validate their candidacy. The number of signatures you need and the time period during which you can collect them varies by office and party affiliation. If you’re running for mayor in one of the two major parties, you need 1,000 signatures at the absolute minimum and those need to be collected “not prior to the thirteenth Tuesday before the primary and not later than the tenth Tuesday prior to the primary.” In the case of our May 19 primary, this means Democratic and Republican candidates can only circulate a petition between Feb. 13 and March 10. And don’t forget to file the $100 fee.

Who can circulate my nominating petition?

No doubt, gentle reader, that you’ve been approached over the last few weeks by campaign staffers in search of signatures. You can’t just your friend’s old roommate to help you out. Circulators need to be registered to vote in the same party as the candidate they’re helping. From there (surprise!) it gets a little complicated. Schmidt explained that circulators for district candidates (like City Council) are sort-of-but-not-really required to live in the same district. So you can’t circulate petitions for First District Candidate Mark Squilla if you don’t live in his district. But the Pennsylvania Department of State was sued over this very issue a couple years ago. And the department decided to settle by having the language removed from state and city petitions. There was no judicial ruling over whether the requirement is legal or not, the petitions simply don’t say one way or the other.

Who can sign my nominating petition?

So if you’re running for mayor and you need 1,000 signatures, you’re running for a citywide office. That means your supporters aren’t limited to a specific area like, say, 9th District Council. But the signatures do need to belong to people who are registered with the party for which you’ve declared candidacy. Signatures need to be accompanied by the printed name, address and date of signature.

For the May primary, candidates need to get their signatures in by March 10. But citizens don’t have to register to vote or update their registration until April 19. So if you’re a registered Democrat who wants to support a Republican mayoral candidate, you can only sign that candidate’s petition if the timestamp on your voter registration form is the same as or earlier than when you signed the petition. In other words, you can’t sign the petition today and change your party next week. Do that and your signature will be flagged should another candidate issue a challenge.

Speaking of challenges…

They’re not easy. A candidate can’t just cry foul on another candidate’s pe based on suspicion alone. A challenge involves poring through a candidate’s signatures line by line and enumerating specific issues with specific signatures. This is why candidates are encouraged to get way more than the minimum number of signatures.

Take for example the 10,000 signatures Anthony Hardy Williams’ campaign filed last week. A candidate would have to say, for example, the signature on line 26 of page 47 does not belong to a registered voter. So you’d have to find 9,000 other specific examples in order to even think about getting Williams off the ballot.

To avoid a challenge, Schmidt recommends circulating petitions to people you already know meet your requirements. Do that by having a list of registered voters in your party (and your district, if applicable) and go door to door. By standing outside a train station, or Traffic Court (hot tip from a city employee we ran into Monday trying to do our own signature gathering), you’re setting yourself up for bad signatures. Maybe the person isn’t registered in your party — or at all. Maybe he or she doesn’t even live in the city.

From our limited experience asking people to sign our (completely fake) petition, people will sign anything without really investigating.

Thanks to the Board of Ethics for following up to clarify a few things in this story, including the order in which campaign finance reports are filed.

  How to Run for Office in Philadelphia

Shannon Wink was editor of Billy Penn from August 2017 to January 2018.