Boston voters, beware: Clipboard-toting mobs are expected to stake out polling places Tuesday, not for the Senate primary at hand, but to collect signatures for mayoral candidates seeking a spot on the fall ballot.
It promises to be a maelstrom of democracy, triggered by chance. The Senate primary happens to fall on the same day would-be mayors can start the scramble for signatures.
Boston voters will pay the price.
Collectively, the field of two dozen candidates will need 72,000 different signatures, because only the first campaign to submit a voter’s signature gets to count it.
Political operatives will wait in line at the Election Department the moment the clock strikes 9 a.m., to fetch the papers they need to gather voter signatures. Cars crammed with campaign workers will idle outside City Hall, ready to race across Boston and distribute signature papers to volunteers outside of polling places.
It will mark the first true test for fledgling mayoral campaigns. Political junkies will take note of who has signs planted outside polling places. They will try to gauge which campaigns have the largest army of volunteers collecting signatures from the city’s 389,000 registered voters. And they will keep a close eye on volunteers for Senate candidates, peering at lapels to see if there are buttons and other signs that they have pledged fealty to a team this fall.
“This is like opening day for the Red Sox,” said Michael J. McCormack, a former Boston city councilor. “This is opening day for the mayor’s race. People keep score. They count. They see who’s got an organization.”
To rein in potential chaos, Boston’s top election official issued a stern warning about harassment at the ballot box. Signature-gathers must stay 150 feet away from the outside door of a polling place. The Election Department handed a letter to candidates that threatened to enlist police to enforce the rule.
“We’re not going to have the voters running a gantlet,” said Geraldine Cuddyer, chairwoman of the Boston Elections Commission. “I just can’t have voters having 10 to 15 sets of papers pushed in front of them and all they want to do is go in and vote.”
The split-second decision about whether to scrawl a name on nomination papers for a mayoral hopeful will be significant.
“The people who are voting Tuesday are the die-hards,” said another former city councilor, John M. Tobin Jr. “These are the superstar voters. Their signatures are worth gold.”
In city elections, unlike state campaigns, signatures are first come, first counted. A voter’s signature can count for only one mayoral candidate. That is why campaigns will race back to City Hall with batches of signature papers to get them time-stamped in the Election Department.
Time stamps will be the tie-breaker if the same voter signs nominating papers for multiple candidates. The first campaign to bring the signature to City Hall will get credit. Mayoral campaigns must collect signatures of 3,000 registered voters by May 21 to appear on the ballot in a preliminary election Sept. 24. The election between the two top vote-getters is scheduled for Nov. 5.
Twenty-four people have applied for nomination papers for mayor, translating into the need for those 72,000 different signatures. That is more than the 63,000 ballots cast in the last municipal election. Adding to the crush will be the 48 people running for City Council and scrounging for their own signatures. In order for each of the candidates who has applied for nomination papers to get on the ballot, roughly 1 in 5 voters in the city will have to sign one of the hopefuls’ signature papers.
History has shown that many candidates will fall short of the signature requirement, but others will succeed.
Perennial candidate Althea Garrison, for example, collects signatures herself, and her name has appeared on ballots in almost every election, including the 2001 preliminary election for mayor. Garrison did not return a phone call last week to discuss her tactics, but the recorded message on her answering machine included a reminder: “Please don’t forget — I need your signature.”
Other candidates — including Councilor Michael P. Ross and John F. Barros — scheduled organizing meetings over the weekend. Bill Walczak said he has had three training sessions for volunteers at his home and hired a coordinator for the signature-gathering effort.
Boston has 159 polling locations. Like a good fishing hole, some polling locations will draw a larger number of voters because they cover several precincts. That includes the main library in Copley Square, Cathedral High School in the South End, and Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester. Another hot spot will be Florian Hall, polling place for the precinct that includes Keystone Apartments, an elderly housing complex in Neponset.
“I don’t look at [Tuesday] as opening day,” said another mayoral candidate, Councilor Rob Consalvo. “I look at it as the top of the first inning in a nine-
inning game. Our signature drive will go well beyond Tuesday.”
Consalvo and other candidates will knock on doors to gather signatures. Campaign workers with clipboards will linger outside bingo halls and banks and supermarkets such as Roche Bros. in West Roxbury.
“They are welcome to get signatures out there, but they can only do it one at a time,” said store manager Terry McIntosh, who noted that charitable groups and Girl Scouts selling cookies have weekends reserved outside the store through July.
Seasoned political operatives know that the rush at subway stations can make for lousy signatures spots. Commuter rail stations fare better because trains run on schedules. But Boston transit hubs and supermarkets attract people from Dedham, Quincy, and Cambridge. Shoppers may not be registered to vote in Boston.
But Tuesday, polling places are guaranteed to attract what campaigns call “good signatures,” those of registered voters who live in Boston.
“We’ve put a lot of time planning for the day,” said another mayoral candidate, Councilor John R. Connolly .
State Representative Martin J. Walsh, another mayoral candidate, said the signature push during the primary will be like a dress rehearsal that allows campaigns to spot holes in their field organization. But Walsh noted that many election volunteers will be tied up with the Senate campaigns that day.
“My cousin is supporting Stevie Lynch,” Walsh said, referring to the Democratic congressman running for US Senate. “He’s already said to me, ‘I am working for Lynch all day on Tuesday.’ ”Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.