Getting on the Ballot in NY State Part 2: Caucus or Petition?

This post is an excerpt from our forthcoming The Ulster County Electoral Field Guide, developed by Ulster People Vice Chair Penny Coleman. We have done our best to ensure its accuracy as of March 2019.

Series Navigation

Getting on the Ballot: Caucus or Petition

Party nomination of candidates for elective office is made at either a party caucus or in a primary election.  In Ulster County, petitioning is used for all state and county-wide offices, legislative seats, and some town offices.  If more than one candidate from the same party submits enough valid petition signatures, there will also be a primary election.  The City of Kingston and the Towns of Woodstock and New Paltz have switched to petition, but in other towns the caucus is still used.


Caucus was the original system political parties used in the US to choose candidates.  Since the beginning of the 20th century, most states have changed to the primary system.  In New York State, the caucus system is still used in many towns and villages.

If your town or village holds a caucus, your local party committee will schedule a meeting that is open to all voters in the jurisdiction registered to their party.  Candidate nominations are taken from the floor, seconded, and then voted on by all present. Voting is conducted by raising hands, by separating into groups representing each candidate and counted manually, or by secret ballot.

The date, time and venue for the meeting is chosen by the local party committee and can be a matter of strategy.  Party members who want to nominate candidates and vote must show up in person. Absentee ballots are NOT applicable in caucuses.  Obviously, days and times that are either more or less convenient to voters will have a huge effect on how many can or will attend.  (See 2019 Ulster County Board of Elections Caucus Packet.)

Caucus Pros and Cons

The caucus format favors candidates who have a dedicated and organized following in their party and can be relied upon to participate.  Hence, a small band of devoted party activists and volunteers can exert an outsized influence in the open setting of a caucus.

Because everyone must gather at the same time and place, and because notification of all those eligible to vote can be difficult and haphazard, attendance can be very low for these elections, giving those with a strong and enthusiastic group of local supporters an advantage.   Before a vote is taken, voters can speak on behalf of the candidates they are supporting, so the process can take a long time.

Note:  If you are a candidate in a caucus district, it is essential to make sure your supporters show up for the vote.   

On the plus side, the caucus process is more participatory, more like a neighborly discussion than a box checked in the anonymity of a voting booth.  That encourages more direct involvement with voters, which can mean voters paying more attention to the issues, which can translate into a big pay-off in November.  Also, the costs for a caucus are lower than for a primary. They are run by volunteers, usually in donated space, and require no machines.


In order to run for most offices in New York State, you will have to petition to get your name on the ballot.  (In Ulster County, only local Democratic candidates in the City of Kingston and the Towns of Woodstock and New Paltz must petition to appear on the ballot. All other local Democratic candidates and all Republican candidates are chosen by caucus.  County and statewide candidates all must petition.)

If petitioning was originally intended to demonstrate a certain level of community support for a candidate and to involve citizens in a facet of the democratic process, it does neither with much effect.  Petition signatures gathered by you or in your behalf do not imply support for your candidacy nor suggest an intention to vote for you. For demonstrating or encouraging involvement in the democratic process, signing a petition is a very low bar.

What the petition process does effectively accomplish is limit the number of candidates applying for any one office and provide an early opportunity for you to ID potential supporters.

Gathering petition signatures is time consuming, labor intensive work.  Signatures must be gathered in a limited period of time, from a prescribed voter population by prescribed petitioners.  They must be witnessed according to prescribed rules and submitted in a prescribed format. The number of signatures required for the various types of petitions can be daunting. (See

Daunting, but not necessarily a waste of time.  Petitioning happens in the early stages of the campaign, a time when you are still very much in the process of collecting and coding voters.  Many voters who sign your petitions won’t yet have made up their minds and others will change theirs before the election. When you ask them to sign your petition, you are not asking them to commit to voting for you,..but the conversation you have may give you a sense of how they are leaning.  Ask them directly and code their responses. You may come across some who are very enthusiastic, who may become primes on your target list or even recruited to volunteer. and who will become Primes on your target list.

Also remember that the more petition signatures you gather and the earlier you gather them, the fewer voters will be available for signing your opponent’s petitions.  

A petition is the gathered signatures of voters who:

  • live in the district you hope to represent
  • are enrolled in your party
  • and have not previously signed a petition for another candidate running for the same office.

The rules are not overly complicated–and they are carefully spelled out both below and on the NYS Board of Elections website.  But it is important to remember that petitions are legal documents and, if you don’t follow the rules, your petitions may be invalidated and you will not appear on the ballot.  So make certain that you and any others collecting signatures on your behalf, understand the rules and follow them precisely.

So, aside from caucus, there are two ways to petition to get your name on the ballot in New York State: Party Designating Petitions and Independent Nominating Petitions. A third, Opportunity to Ballot Petitions, is only applicable in primary elections.

Series Navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *