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Why 1,000 is Such a Huge Number

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Now that we are past most of the county assemblies in Colorado, Peter Blake of the Rocky Mountain News brings up an issue that has always seemed a little odd to me: the petition process for getting your name on the ballot.

Anybody can run for public office by submitting the required paperwork to the Colorado Secretary of State, but it’s not that easy to get your name onto the ballot in November. The next step is for candidates to decide on one of two options for getting onto the primary ballot (which obviously comes before the general election in November). Those options are: 1) approval through their respective assembly, or 2) by gathering enough signatures through the petition process.

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If you go the assembly route, you need to get at least 30 percent of the vote from delegates representing your district to qualify for the primary ballot in August. If you get less than 30 percent but more than 10 percent of the vote, you must try to gather enough signatures to petition onto the ballot. If you get less than 10% of the vote, you’re out; you can gather all the signatures you want and it won’t matter. Some candidates will go through the assembly process and fall into the middle range, which gives them the option to petition onto the ballot. That’s where the rules get screwy, and I’ll let Blake explain:

Peggy Lamm, one of three Democrats seeking the nod in the 7th Congressional District, has been placing want ads online soliciting signature gatherers. “Hours are flexible, pay is $7.50 an hour. Must live in the 7th . . .”

That “must” is a giveaway. Lamm needs only 1,000 signatures to make the Aug. 8 ballot, which isn’t an overwhelming number. But there’s a catch. Not only must the signatories be Democrats who live in the district, so must the signature gatherers. At least it’s legal to pay them.

Statewide initiatives require many more signatures – almost 68,000 this year – but the collectors don’t have to be affiliated with a party and can live anywhere in the state, just like the signers. If you can afford to pay collectors, you can set up outside any shopping center and assume most signatures will be valid.

But candidates have it harder. They almost have to go door to door with a list of registered voters to be efficient. It is also essential to have the candidate personally involved, according to a petition veteran. Lamm apparently has enough cash to pay for signatures, reporting first-quarter contributions of $162,000.

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Gathering 1,000 signatures may not seem like a big deal, but remember that you need to have 1,000 valid signatures — that is, signatures from actual, living people who are registered voters in the district in which you are running. Oh, and they have to be registered voters of the same political party as yours. As if there aren’t enough catches here, you have to assume that a certain percentage of your signatures will be deemed invalid for any number of reasons — say, the name is illegible or the person isn’t a registered voter anymore — so the general rule is to try to collect double the number of needed signatures to give yourself plenty of wiggle room in case a lot of them turn out to be invalid.

Lamm shouldn’t have too much of a problem gathering her signatures because she has enough money to pay signature-gatherers to do the majority of the work, which is a common tactic. But if you don’t have a big warchest and must rely on volunteers, that’s when it gets tough. Try it yourself — go outside tonight for an hour and see how many people you can get to sign a petition for something. You’d be lucky to get 20 signatures, of which probably five would end up being invalid. Needless to say, it’s a pain in the ass.

Why is it so difficult? Let’s take a look at how getting a valid signature can be like finding a bus seat during an RTD strike. According the the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, there are 119,164 registered Democrats in congressional district seven (CD-7). There are 355,043 total registered voters in the district, which means that only 34% of the registered voters in CD-7 are eligible to sign Lamm’s petition.

Think that’s tough? According to the U.S. Census 2004 American Community Survey, there are roughly 608,503 people living in CD-7. That means that four out of every five people in CD-7 can’t sign Lamm’s petition even if they wanted to.

Now you see how difficult the process can be, but it is still not as big of a pain in the ass as it would be if you were running for the state legislature. Why? Let’s go back to Blake:

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If Lamm and Rubenstein are having a hard time gathering signatures, state Sen. Kiki Traylor, R-Littleton, will have it even harder. She also needs 1,000 signatures, but must collect them from a population one-fifth the size of a congressional district, using only resident Republicans to gather them from other resident Republicans.

As of Tuesday she still hadn’t decided whether to proceed with the effort. Already on the ballot is Mike Kopp, who captured 54 percent of the vote at the April 1 assembly.

Let’s look at the task for Traylor. According to the Secretary of State, there are 38,137 registered Republicans in Senate District 22 (SD-22); those are the only people who can sign Traylor’s petition. There are 87,684 total registered voters in SD-22, which means that only 43% of all registered voters in SD-22 can sign on the dotted line. Traylor has slightly better statistical odds of running into a registered Republican among all registered voters than does Lamm, but she also has a district one-fifth of the size to do it in.

There’s no reason that Traylor should have to come up with the same number of signatures as Lamm, but thems the rules.

Don’t be surprised if Traylor just decides to pack it in and not petition onto the ballot. After all, time is of the essence: You only have until May 25th to get all of those signatures to the Secretary of State.

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