A sign marking the polling place at Ben Franklin High School on North Broad Street (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

It’s crunch time for Philadelphia mayoral and Council candidates as they face their first real tests ahead of the May 16 primary:

They have to actually get their names on the ballot. 

The biggest hurdle in the process is gathering signatures for their nominating petitions. Candidates and their teams are now racing to collect those from potential constituents —  enough to meet the minimums set by election law. Meanwhile, their lawyers are getting ready to challenge the validity of rival candidates’ filings.

Candidates also have to meet a few other important deadlines in the next few weeks regarding campaign finance filings. They then watch as a coffee can lottery decides what order their name shows up on the ballot.

Here’s an overview of what’s coming up, and how it could thin the field.

When do candidates collect signatures?

Candidates in Philadelphia were allowed to start collecting signatures on Tuesday, Feb. 14, and must file their completed petitions with the Board of Elections by March 7.

They’re holding petition-signing events, and together with volunteers and paid workers, fanning out across the city to gather signatures.

How many do they need?

Most municipal candidates must submit 1,000 signatures, including people running for mayor, councilmember at-large, city controller, city commissioner, register of wills, sheriff, judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and judge of Municipal Court. 

Candidates for Council district seats must submit 750 signatures.

Many of the mayoral candidates are expected to exceed the 1,000-signature minimum by several thousand names, both to give them a cushion against challenges and as a chest-beating display. 

In 2019, running for reelection without a strong challenge, Mayor Jim Kenney’s campaign submitted 24,000 signatures.

When do they file challenges?

Lawyers for the candidates will immediately start poring through rival petitions and submitting objections, which are due by March 14. 

Candidates who want to withdraw their nominations must do so by March 22.

In most major election cycles a few candidates get knocked off the ballot, typically over forged or otherwise invalid signatures or because they omitted information from their financial disclosures.

Four years ago, both would-be challengers to City Council President Darrell Clarke had to end their bids for office after they were dinged for errors in their petitions. A judicial candidate withdrew after the political consultant he hired collected faked signatures and photocopied pages.

How many petitions can I sign? 

You’re allowed to sign as many petitions as candidates you can vote for. That generally means one mayoral petition, one for district council, five for at-large candidates, two commissioner petitions, and so on.

To be eligible to sign, you have to be a registered voter in Philadelphia. Democrats may sign Democratic petitions, and Republicans can sign Republican petitions. Independents cannot sign either. You can only sign district council petitions for candidates in your district.

How are ballot positions decided?

On March 15, as the petition winnowing process continues, candidates or their proxies gather in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall for a controversial, decades-old ritual: drawing numbers from an old Harn & Hardart coffee can. (Judges draw numbers at a similar event in Harrisburg.)

Research shows that getting a low number, and thus a favorable ballot position, gives a candidate an advantage. That’s especially true for lower-information contests with more candidates, like judicial races — although getting a low number does not guarantee a win, and a high number does not inevitably spell defeat.

When will we get another look at how much money candidates have?

Candidates and candidate committees have slightly different campaign finance reporting requirements. The next deadline for candidates is May 5, while committees must submit reports by April 4 and May 5. 

Then the pace picks up: From May 2 through the primary, candidates and committees must report any contributions or pledges of $500 or more within 24 hours of receiving them.

The post-primary reporting deadline for both candidates and committees is June 15, and there are additional deadlines before and after the November election. Political action committees (PACs) and other outside groups seeking to influence the election also have to file periodically, depending on how much they spend and other factors.

How does primary voting work?

Voters may mark their ballots or push buttons for one candidate each for mayor, district councilperson, city controller, register of wills, and sheriff. 

You can vote for two city commissioner candidates, 10 candidates for Court of Common Pleas, two for Municipal Court, and up to five at-large Council candidates.

In the at-large Council race, the five Democrats and five Republicans who receive the most votes will go on to the general election in November.

Nomination petitions from Working Families Party candidates and other third-party or independent candidates are due Aug. 1. They will appear on the November ballot along with the Democratic and Republican primary winners.

Do voters have any deadlines?

Glad you asked. The last day to register before the primary is May 1, and the last day to apply for a mail-in or civilian absentee ballot is May 9. Information on how to register and how to vote by mail is available from the City Commissioners Office. 

The Board of Elections must receive mail-in and civilian absentee ballots by 8 p.m. on primary day, May 16 — so be sure to drop them in the mail at least a few days before then.

Military and overseas absentee ballots must be mailed by 11:59 p.m. on May 15 and received by the Board of Elections by May 23.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...