The saga of Eliot Spitzer, candidate for an obscure job in the labyrinthine bureaucracy that runs New York City, hinges on a peculiarity of the city's election law. Can the former governor of the state find 3,750 people willing to sign a piece of paper asking that he be on the ballot? As with so many things in elections, a law meant to bolster democracy is now a weird, cumbersome anachronism easily solved with the universal, eternal political lubricant: dollar bills.
Or, rather, not easily. Spitzer's last-second, seemingly impulsive decision to jump into the city comptroller race left him with only hours to collect the signatures he needs in order to actually be a candidate. Candidates who've been planning their campaigns for months or years began collecting signatures on June 4, the first possible day to do so. Spitzer didn't go public about his run until the evening of July 7; the next morning, the Board of Elections opened the window for accepting completed petitions from candidates. It closes tomorrow.
So Spitzer—who, again, once ran the state of New York—had to scramble. At first, he appealed to Craigslist, offering $12 an hour for "petition gatherers / paid canvassers starting ASAP." According to the Daily News, he's had to significantly increase that bounty, now offering $800 a day (or $66 an hour for a 12-hour day) in his scramble to get the signatures he needs.
One key problem is that turning in a flat 3,750 signatures won't cut it. As Politicker NY points out, campaigns "typically collect many, many more [than needed]—both as a symbol of operational strength as well as to stave off lawsuits filed by challengers who can try to invalidate many names they collect." In 2005, the old New York Sun detailed that second phase of the signature process: validation. Candidates' opponents throw every possible legal challenge at every possible signature. The city charter mandates that signatures be from residents of the district under contention (in this case, residents of the city) and members of the candidate's party. They may also only sign one petition for any candidate in a race—so if someone signed a petition for one of Spitzer's competitors during the weeks prior to his entry, its the earlier signature that counts. Spitzer, of course, will have his own team of attorneys working the Board of Elections, rhetorically twisting arms and offering legal responses. The fewer signatures he turns in, the more important this phase becomes.
It's easy to see how money helps. Spitzer can throw $800 at a canvasser and hire as many lawyers as needed. As the Sunlight Foundation notes, in Spitzer's last campaign for governor, the top individual donor was one Eliot Spitzer. The second most generous person was Bernard Spitzer, Eliot's father. In fourth was Anne Spitzer, the candidate's mother.
This is the opposite of how it was supposed to be. The petition process, while clearly favoring Democrats in a Democrat-heavy city, was meant to offer a route onto the ballot that didn't require going through one of the city's massive, powerful political machines at the turn of the last century. Those machines, personified by Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed, revolved around cash and power. Signatures were a way for the average, un-monikered Joe to get a shot at being elected.
For many candidates, that ideal is how it still works: they get volunteers, friends, and family and go door-to-door or stand outside grocery stores asking for signatures. Larger campaigns will often send out paid staffers for part of each day during the collection period, but only very well-funded campaigns in New York hire specific petition-gatherers. (See: Bloomberg, Michael.)
This contrasts with other petition efforts around the country. Many states have rules allowing petition drives for special considerations, like the recall of elected officials or to place an initiative on the statewide ballot. California's enthusiastic embrace of ballot propositions has helped foster a petition-gathering industry. But most places don't require signatures for the mundane process of filing to run for any office the way New York does—or, rather, they offer the choice between paying a filing fee and collecting signatures to get on the ballot. For a candidate for the New York City Council—which, you may not know, has 51 members—trying to get on the ballot for a race that most New Yorkers pay little attention to can be burdensome. (Nor is the city's FAQ on the process particularly helpful.)
If anyone were to decide on a whim one summer weekend that he wanted to be the comptroller (or mayor or public advocate) for the city of New York, he or she would want at least two things: name recognition and deep pockets. Hence: Spitzer. The political machines of the 19th century are dead and buried, but the mechanisms by which people got on the ballot—cash and cachet—remain quite vibrant.