Get On the Ballot!

How do you get on the ballot in Massachusetts, for partisan office?

I'll limit the discussion here to statewide offices, the State Legislature, and the Governor's Council. The legal numbers treat all parties the same, but the practical numbers distinguish between parties. I'll look at both.

First I have to explain terms describing parties and terms describing voters. I'll then discuss legal petitioning requirements, practical petitioning requirements, and primaries and ballot trickery. The Primary Election is the tool that lets you get on the ballot while letting someone else do the petitioning.

I. Terms Describing Types of Parties and Types of Voters.


Massachusetts distinguishes between Major Parties, Party Designations, and independent candidates. A group becomes a Party Designation by petitioning. A group becomes a Major Party by getting votes or registered voters.

There are two ways for a group to gain Major Party Status:

(1) A candidate for statewide office, whose ballot listing identifies him as a member of that party, gets 3% or more of the vote in an election for statewide office. This Status lasts until the next statewide election. (the statewide offices are Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, Auditor, Secretary of the Commonwealth, U.S. Senator (in years when there is a Senate Election) and President (in years when there is a Presidential election).)

(2) A scheduled count of registered voters reveals that more than 1% of the registered voters in the state have enrolled as members of that party. This status lasts until the next count, which must then show that the party has enough registered voters.

In recent years, Massachusetts has usually had 3 major parties, Democratic, Republican, and one other. The one other has at different times been the Independent Voters, Reform, or Libertarian Party. The Democratic and Republican Parties qualify as Major Parties under both of the above rules. They both have more than 1% of the registered voters, and at least one of their statewide candidates got more than 3% of the vote in the last general election.

The one other party has always qualified because one of its statewide candidates got 3% of the vote. The Libertarian and Reform Parties have each done this twice, but not in consecutive elections, while the Independent Voters/Mass Hi-Tech Party did it once.

No party other than Democrat or Republican has recently come close to 1% of the registered voters. (At last report, 1% of the registered voters in around 37,000 people.) The Libertarians at recent count had 8000 registered voters, a quarter of a percent; Reform had around 1000 registered voters.

A group gains Party Designation status by filing a petition signed (at last report) by 50 registered voters, asking that the designation be listed. At the moment, there are about a dozen party designations. If your group had a Party designation, and gains and then loses Major Party Status in two elections, the Party Designation petition is still on file; you recover Party Designation status when you lose Major Party status. (The LP did this in 1996, setting the legal precedent; I don't know if Reform did in 1998 or not. Apparently the 1996 LP was the first group to argue the precedent.) The Secretary of the Commonwealth interprets the law to mean that a Major Party may not voluntarily disorganize itself and return to Party Designation status, but to my knowledge this has not been litigated.


: Massachusetts uses a specific language to describe voters. A registered voter is anyone who has filled out the motor voter form and is in fact entitled to vote. If you check one of the boxes on the Motor Voter form, e.g., "Reform", or if you fill in the Party Designation line with the name of a Party Designation, you have "enrolled" in that Major Party or Party Designation. For example, if you checked the "Republican" box, you are an enrolled Republican. If you do not check a box, you are "Unenrolled", a status the rest of the country calls "Independent". However, in Massachusetts, an "independent voter" is a member of the Independent Voters Party, which had Major Party Status a few years back.

For better or worse, until recently there was another way to change your party enrollment. If you were an Unenrolled Voter, you could vote in the Presidential Primary of any of the Major Parties (in 1996, and almost certainly in 2000, all three major parties will have one). When you voted, you were enrolled in that party. You could change back to Unenrolled on the spot, by filing out a Motor Voter form, but many people forgot to change back. To add complexity, until recently when an Unenrolled voter voted in the September (state office) Primary of a Major Party, he was also re-enrolled into the Party in whose primary he voted. The result of this second way to change party registration is that a substantial fraction of the state's voters don't realize which party the state has enrolled them in. Top of Page.



In Massachusetts, the only ways to get on the ballot are via petition (the official phrase is "nominating paper") signed by registered voters, or via a sticker ("write-in") campaign in the September primary. For Major Party candidates, the petition puts the candidate on the September Primary Ballot. For all other candidates, the petition puts the candidate on the November General Election ballot.

To seek via petition the nomination of a Major Party or Party Designation, you must be enrolled in that Party. Until recently, a voter could only sign one petition per office. This rule has been dropped. Until recently, the number of signatures required to get on the ballot was reduced for "small" Major Parties ("third" Major Parties, Republicans in some parts of the state). This rule has been dropped.

The required number of petition signatures for various offices are:

TABLE 1 - Legally Required Count of Signatures

U.S. Senator, Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General - 10,000*

Treasurer, Auditor, Secretary of the Commonwealth - 5000*

U.S. Congress - 2,000

Governor's Council - 1,000

State Senator - 300

State Representative - 150

*Major Parties must circulate a separate petition for each candidate. Party designations may circulate one petition listing a slate of candidates for statewide office; 10,000 signatures is enough to put the whole slate on the November ballot.

Each signature is checked by town or city officials, and must be valid. To be valid, a signature must (1) be by a registered voter (2) who lives in the district, and (3) who is a member of the right party. Unenrolled voters can sign any petition. Voters enrolled in a Major Party may not sign the petition of a candidate of another Major Party. Thus, in the last election, only Democrats and Unenrolleds could sign a Democratic candidate's petition, but any voter could sign an independent (unenrolled) or Libertarian (Party Designation) Petition.

The rules for the U.S. President are more complex: A Party Designation or Unenrolled candidate for U.S. President needs 10,000 signatures to get on the November ballot. The State Committee of a Major Party informs the Secretary of the Commonwealth of the name of their candidate, which automatically goes on the November ballot. Major Party candidates get into the Presidential Primary, when last I checked, because either (1) the State Committee of that Party put them on the ballot, (2) the Secretary of the Commonwealth determines that there is substantial interest in their campaign, or (3) petition with 10,000 signatures. Top of Page.


Your humble correspondent has actually tried to get on the ballot twice, in 1996 as a Major Party Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate and in 1998 as a Party Designation Libertarian candidate for U.S. Congress. I only know of one other resident of the Commonwealth who has petitioned under both sets of rules, so I speak from one in a million unique personal experience.

First, the numbers above represent minimum numbers of valid signatures. If you have just barely enough signatures, one of your opponents may try to knock you off the ballot. Recall the CLTG tax cut initiative last year. A traditional safety estimate is that you want an extra 20% above the minimum; e.g., if you are running for U.S. Senate, you really want 12,000 good signatures, not 10,000. If you are running for State Rep, you want 180 or 200 valid signatures, not 150.

Now we come to practice. The numbers I just quoted are *valid* signatures. An Unenrolled voter can sign any petition. Any Registered Voter can sign the petition of an independent or Party Designation candidate. However, if you have enrolled in a Major Party, you may not sign the petition of a candidate from another Major Party. Thus, in the 1998 election, only Republicans, Unenrolled Voters, and Party Designation voters could sign the petition of a Republican. However, any registered voter could sign a petition to put a Libertarian on the ballot, because in 1998 "Libertarian Party" was a Party Designation. The Libertarian Party has now gained Major Party Status for the 2000 election; consequences are noted below.

If you collect signatures door to door, you know whose signature you have collected, and can check if it is valid. If you stand in a Mall or in front of the supermarket, and collect signatures from people who think they are eligible to sign, there are complications:

First, off the top, 10% (small towns) to 30% (large cities) of the signers turn out not to be registered voters.

Second, especially for the State House, some towns are split between several districts. Most people do not know which District they live in. If your town is divided into four districts, one per seat in the state legislature, close to 3/4 of your signatures will come from people who live in the right town but the wrong District.

Third, many signatures will be from people who are enrolled in the wrong party. They have forgotten which party they are in (for example, they forgot that they voted in a 1960 primary election), don't understand our state's rules on the topic,... You can question people more extensively about whether they are eligible to sign, but this doesn't in practice appear to affect the validity rates.

So, how many real signatures do you need to get on the ballot? I have run under a Party Designation and as a candidate of a Major Party. I have carefully tracked my signature validity rates. This year, I had the good fortune to have some petitions evaluated by cities and towns both under the Major Party and the Party Designation rules, so I have exactly comparable numbers. As a party designation candidate, 80% or so of my signatures were valid. As a Libertarian Major Party candidate in 1996, validity rates ranged from 1/3 down to 12% (in Boston). The signatures evaluated both ways were 80% valid under Party Designation rules, but only 30% valid under the Major Party rules.

If your petitioners work hard to question voters about which Party they are in, you can get the validity percentages higher. However, filtering your signatures harder only makes it more difficult to get on the ballot. You have to approach at least as many people, if not more, because your prefiltering effort will elimiante some number of valid signatures.

The following table shows how many signatures you need. Numbers are for wholesale (Mall, supermarket, post office) collecting, not retail (door to door) collecting. If you have a town split between districts, you'll need even more signatures. For each office, I give five numbers, starting with the legal minimum of valid signatures. The next two columns are estimates for the Democratic and Republican Primary nominations. The fourth column is for a candidate of a third Major Party, e.g. Reform in 1998, Libertarian in 1996. The fifth column is for persons running under a Party Designation or as an independent candidate.

The Reform Party numbers are quoted as matching the Libertarian for each status. Actually there are eight or so times as many enrolled Libertarians as there are enrolled Reform Party voters, so it is slightly harder to get on the ballot under the Reform label. The practical difference between Libertarian and Reform is very small.

TABLE 2 - Practical Count of Needed Signatures for Nomination







Statewide- Senator,Gov..


















Governor's Council






State Senate






State Representative






*Been there, did this, and it worked.

You can get the appearance of beating these numbers by working harder to eliminate invalid signatures before they are entered. However, eliminating those signatures increases the amount of work that you have to do.

**Been here (with a different rule on how many valid signatures were needed). Didn't set the target number of raw signatures vaguely high enough, didn't estimate the validity rate vaguely low enough, and failed to get on the ballot.

Note that life is much harder in practice if you are part of a small Major Party than if you are an independent. Democrats and Independents are currently about even in terms of practical ballot access requirements, party organization roughly canceling slightly higher signature requirements.

I emphasize that my D/R numbers are probably not as accurate as the other two columns, where I have practical experience. Required numbers will be higher in areas with poor party membership, e.g., Republicans in Cambridge. For State Rep, Republicans quote "300" rather than "450" as the needed number of signatures, but that number appears to assume that local town and ward committees can come through with some signatures of members. Top of Page.


If you are running as an independent or under a Party Designation, your nominating papers get you onto the November Ballot. File the required number of valid signatures, and a reasonable safety margin, and you are probably home free.

If you are running as a candidate of a Major Party, life is more complicated. Major party petitions get you into your party's Primary. You have to win the Primary to get onto the November ballot, as several erstwhile Gubernatorial candidates found last year. If you have an opponent who gets more votes, the opponent advances to the November General Election Ballot.

Sticker Campaigns, which are not unknown in Massachusetts, make life more complicated. I say "sticker" because many candidates supply their voters with a stick-on label they can put on the ballot. However, these labels tend to jam machines. In many small towns, Town Clerks will be very helpful about interpreting the voter's handwriting on a real "write-in" vote, in order to avoid having labels going into their machines. Speak to your Town Clerk well before the election.

Suppose you would like to run for some office as the candidate of a Major Party, but missed the petition deadlines, which are a half year before the election. You can still run a sticker campaign in the party's primary. How many votes do you need? It depends:

1) If no one in the party is running for that office, so the ballot is blank, you need to get as many Write-In (sticker) votes as you would have needed signatures on your petition. In 1996, someone ran for State Rep as a Libertarian by running a sticker campaign in the Libertarian Primary and getting (see Table 1) more than the required 150 votes.

2) If someone has already done petitioning, and is on the ballot, all you have to do is beat them by getting more write-in votes than they get regular votes. If the person on the ballot gets 5 votes, and you get 6 write-in votes, you are the party nominee, even though you would have needed 10,000 valid signatures on your petitions to appear on the ballot.

Now we come to catch-22. To have your name on the primary ballot of a major party, you must be a member of that Party. Only a Republican can have his name appear on a Republican ballot, and so forth.

*HOWEVER*, ANYONE eligible to run for office can run a sticker campaign in the Primary of *any* party. If you get enough votes, or more votes than the person who got on the ballot the hard way, *you win the primary*! This includes people who are already running as the candidate of another Party. What does this mean?

For example, go back to 1996, when the Libertarian Party had Major Party status, and I was their nominee for U.S. Senate. Suppose I had collected enough signatures, so I had been on the September Libertarian Primary ballot. In the real world, I didn't, but it was legally possible. I would reasonably have received most of the normal votes in that primary, about 1600 based on actual vote turn-out.

However, suppose some friends of Bill Weld decided I was going to split the Republican vote. They could have gotten together and run a sticker campaign, of course without telling the Governor who would never have approved such a thing, to persuade those of their friends who were Unenrolled to Vote Weld! in the Libertarian Primary. If Weld had gotten 1601 votes in the Libertarian Primary this way, he would have won the Libertarian Senate Primary. He would then have had two legal choices:

1) Accept the Libertarian nomination, and have his Party Affiliation listed on the November General Election ballot as Republican, Libertarian -- in either order. [Congressman Conte, as I recall, did this to a Democrat once.]

2) Decline the Libertarian nomination, in which case *NO ONE* would have appeared on the U.S. Senate ballot in November as a Libertarian. That's right, *NO ONE*. Only the person who got the most votes can win the election. This was actually done to an Independent Voters Party State Rep candidate, back when they had Major Party status, so there can be no doubt that the move is legal. The IVP had a nominee on the ballot, an opponent ran a sticker campaign in the primary against her and won the IVP primary, but declined the nomination, so no one was on the ballot as an IVP candidate.

That is, you can run a sticker campaign in a primary for the sole purpose of knocking an opposing party out of the race. If the opposing party is small, your chances of doing this are not that bad.

You can make your own estimate of how many votes a Libertarian nominee will be getting in 2000 in her September Primary, and what her chances are of protecting her nomination from a Democrat or Republican interloper. I'd estimate the Libertarians will have 2000 votes in the Senate primary, 200 in a Congressional primary, and 20-50 votes in a primary for State Senate or State Rep. A Democrat or Republican will need something like the same number of sticker votes to win the Libertarian primary, in addition to winning their own primary, so as to knock the actual Libertarian candidate out of the race by September.

It is possible by inspecting the public record to determine that I did not shut down my Congressional Campaign Committee after the last election, but that I recently re-registered as Unenrolled, and therefrom to deduce my estimate of my chances of appearing on the November Ballot if I were to try running for Congress as a Libertarian in 2000.

...George Phillies


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