States use petitions as a way to gauge candidate support and deter frivolous candidates.
While every state allows individual candidates to get on the ballot by collecting a designated number of signatures on a nominating petition, 38 states require candidates to do so.
Six states allow potential candidates to file by petition or by paying a filing fee. Seven of these states allow both major party and independent candidates to file by either petition or by fee. The remaining four require independent candidates to file by petition, but allow major party candidates to file by petition or fee. For more information, see Filing Fees.
Two states, Washington and Hawaii, allow some candidates to file by petition, but restrict this method to people who can prove that they are indigent. Washington requires indigent candidates to file petitions that contain one signature for every dollar that would be required to file by fee. In 2014, there were 421 candidates for both the state Senate and House using this method. Hawaii requires indigent candidates to collect signatures from 0.5 percent of registered voters from the candidate’s district. Read more on indigent filing in all states.
Who May Sign Petitions
Just as states vary on how many signatures are needed on a candidate's petition and how this number is calculated, states also vary on who may sign the petitions. Each state reviews the signatures once they are submitted, and only qualifying signatures are counted toward the required total. For example, some states require that signatures only be collected from people who are residents of the district that the candidate hopes to represent. In these states, signatures of people who reside outside of the district are not counted. This information is often verified by requiring that the signatory include his or her address as well as the signature.
How Many Signatures Are Required
States generally use two different methods for deciding how many signatures are required to become a candidate: (1) a defined number of signatures and (2) a percentage of a defined population.
These requirements vary depending on whether the candidate filing is a major party candidate or an independent candidate.
Major Party Candidates
- 20 states require ONLY a defined number of signatures, ranging from 2-12,000.
- 12 states require ONLY a percentage.
- 5 ask for either percentage or number.
- 13 don’t have a process for major party candidates to file a petition.
- 17 states require ONLY a defined number of signatures, ranging from 25-12,000.
- 17 states require ONLY a percentage.
- 16 either percentage or number.
The 16 states that provide an option allow potential candidates to choose the lesser of either a predetermined number of signatures or a percentage of voters. The predetermined number of signatures can be high. For example, in South Carolina and Missouri, it's 10,000 signatures. So the option to acquire a number that is equal to a percent of a district’s population can be an easier option. In other states the percentage requirement can be high and the predetermined number is much lower. In Minnesota, for example, independent candidates for state senator may either attach a number of signatures that is equal to 10 percent of the district’s population or attach 500 signatures.
States vary in how they define the percentage of signatures needed. The prominent approach, employed by 31 states, is to require a number of signatures that is equal to a percentage of registered voters in the candidate’s district. Oklahoma, for example, requires that potential independent candidates for state representative file a petition that contains a number of signatures that is equal to 4 percent of the number of registered voters in the candidate’s district.
Another approach is to set the requirement at a number that is equal to a percentage of the total number of ballots cast for a certain office in the last election in the candidate’s potential district. Sixteen states regulate petition signatures in such a way. Of these 16 states, seven use the office for which the candidate is running, six use the office of governor, one uses the office of secretary of state and one uses the election for president of the United States. The remaining three states use no defined population or a percentage of the candidate’s district.
Some states also define the scope of a percentage requirement to include registered voters from the candidate’s political party, who are also residents of the candidate’s district. There are 11 such states. For example, New Mexico requires that major party candidates for state representative file a petition that contains a number of signatures that is equal to 3 percent of the number of registered voters that belong to the candidate’s party and reside in the candidate’s potential district.
Iowa, Mississippi and North Dakota are notable exceptions. Iowa and Mississippi require 50 signatures from people who are eligible to vote in the candidate’s potential district. North Dakota requires a percentage of signatures from the entire population of the candidate’s potential district.
About This NCSL Project
NCSL tracks election and campaign issues in four major categories: election laws and procedures, campaign finance, initiative and referendum, and election results and analysis. We provide comprehensive 50-state research and analysis on a wide variety of topics related to these issues.
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