The Road to the Ballot


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At the core of every democracy lies the vote. Our political system is built around the very simple idea that we, the people, choose who will hold public office, and we, the people, have the choice of throwing the rascals out if they do a bad job. At the same time, democracy only works if any member of the public who wants to stand for an election has the chance to do so. Candidates should not come from above as a choice between people selected elsewhere, but as the result of an open, fair process where we all have the chance to participate.

In Connecticut, primary elections are how we take care of this side of the process. These past few weeks, candidates across the state have been racing against the clock, gathering signatures to appear on the ballot, or scrambling around their districts to get enough support to earn their party’s endorsement from a select few.

For those of us who are irredeemable political junkies, these are exciting, incredibly busy times, as we closely track candidates, endorsements, signatures, and votes in several house and senate districts across the state. For the vast majority of people in Connecticut, the whole process goes largely unnoticed, despite the fact that between now and June 11, a mix of political insiders, elected officials, activists, and overworked volunteers will decide who will appear on their ballots in the coming election.

To appear on the ballot in the August 13 primaries, when parties will choose their nominees for state office (House and Senate), a potential candidate has two main routes. The most direct one is to receive the nomination of their local party town committee. The candidate that receives the most votes will appear on the ballot on Row A, with the party’s endorsement. In multi-town districts, if they gathered at least 15% of the votes in the convention they will also get a spot on the ballot.

For those who fail to achieve enough votes in the convention, they have to deal with a much more difficult route. A candidate will have to collect signatures from eligible voters of their own party in the district to appear on the ballot. They need to collect as many as one percent of the total amount of votes cast in that particular district in the previous election cycle. For the average state house seat in our state, this means around 300 signatures overall, to be collected in around two weeks’ time. A State Senate seat will require 1,200 or more in the same timeframe. The signature process is also quite onerous, with circulators requiring multiple validations before final approval.

So, candidates obviously prefer to receive the support of their town committees instead of having to scramble for signatures, and your local Democratic or Republican Town Committee happens to be exceedingly important regarding who will be on the ballot both in the August primaries and the November election. I am pretty sure that most of us do not have the slightest idea of who is currently running each of the parties in our towns, let alone how anyone can be elected to that position – the elections often happen in the late winter, when most people are disengaged from electoral politics altogether.

This is fine, by the way. We are all really busy, and we cannot all be paying attention to everything that happens. The vast majority of DTC and RTC members are dedicated, selfless individuals who deal with the messy, complicated, dull, and boring parts of politics to the best of their ability, and more often than not do a decent job. When primary season comes by, they look at every candidate and are happy and willing to have an open vote and help several of them to the ballot, if that is what their members so decide.

But of course, that is not always the case in every single town committee. Sometimes their members are a small group of insiders that only wants to favor their friends. Sometimes we have good old machine politics at play, and they will only endorse candidates that are in good graces with the Mayor, no matter how many criminal investigations they have pending (hello, Bridgeport!). Sometimes they just have some sort of personal vendetta against a good candidate or are mad at the current incumbent for some reason, and will actively work to block them. The end result is a process where the being-able-to-run-for-office side of democracy falters, and a small set of gatekeepers close the door to good candidates. In special elections, these gatekeepers control all the process, as there is not even a primary to be set, such as in special elections to fill vacancies.

The obvious solution to this problem is to follow the lead of other New England states and lower the signature requirements to appear on the ballot, while also giving more time to collect them. Rhode Island only requires 50 signatures to qualify as a candidate for State Representative and 100 for State Senate, for districts about half the size of Connecticut’s. Massachusetts requires 150 for the House, 300 for Senate in districts slightly larger than ours, but with much more generous timeframes to circulate petitions and open to any voter, not just registered party members. In both cases, all candidates are required to collect signatures, no matter if they were endorsed or not. New Hampshire only requires five signatures for their house candidates, which is a small number even for their tiny (3,300 residents) districts (the Granite State inexplicably has 400 state representatives).

Lowering the signature requirements is a small change, but has some significant consequences. First, it expands the pool of candidates running for office, something we should welcome as a matter of principle; we want more choice, not less. Second, it takes some power away from those local party committees that actively try to stonewall folks running for office. This is important in state elections but absolutely critical in municipal races where political machines still play a big role in shutting down potential challengers (yup, you know where). Connecticut has some of the most onerous signature requirements in the country. A more open primary system is not a magical solution, but it will surely help make our elections better.

One final, equally important note: the ballot access system for minor parties in Connecticut is really restrictive, requiring candidates to collect signatures equal to at least one percent of votes cast in the most recent election (or at least 7,500, whichever is less) to be on the ballot. If we value having multiple voices in our institutions, we should also seriously consider lowering that threshold. Connecticut has fusion voting—let’s give the voters a chance to see where candidates stand!