It is impossible to win an election without knowing the rules of the game. What you must know about getting on the ballot for your political campaign, who gets to vote, when and how they can vote, and the demographics of your jurisdiction

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This is a continuing series on how to prepare for a political campaign. Today’s subject is about the rules you must know, and information you should have about your jurisdiction before you become a candidate.

It is impossible to win without knowing the rules for getting on the ballot. Impossible to create a campaign strategy without knowing the rules about who gets to vote, when they vote, and how they vote. Impossible to fine tune your campaign message without knowing the demographics of people in your jurisdiction. If you don’t, you’ll get your clock cleaned.

What are the rules for getting on the ballot?

In some jurisdictions, it’s very simple. You pay a small fee, or gather a few signatures, file your paperwork and on the ballot you go.

In other jurisdictions, thousands of signatures are required, and there are very specific rules about when petitions can be circulated, the partisan affiliation of voters allowed to sign them, and the kinds of people allowed to carry them.

You can’t get on the ballot without knowing, and complying with the legal requirements. Each and every year, hundreds of political candidates get thrown off the ballot because they fail to comply with the law.

Who Gets to Vote?

In general elections, it’s pretty straight forward. People who are registered are eligible to vote. That said, the deadline for registering to vote varies by jurisdiction. In some places its 30 days before the election, others 45. In some places, voters can register on election day. The registration rules can affect your strategy.

In primaries, some jurisdictions say only registered members of a political party can vote. In others, unaffiliated voters can also vote. Some states like California have what are called jungle primaries, where all candidates face each other in a primary and the top two vote getters advance to the general, regardless of their party affiliation.

When and How Can Voters Vote?

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many states relaxed their rules on when and how people can vote. Because of that, a record number voted by mail in the 2020 election. In some states, voters had to request an absentee ballot. In others, ballots were automatically mailed to registered voters.

Some states allow early in-person voting at designated locations starting weeks before an election. Others limit early voting to the final two weeks. Some states have drop boxes for ballots. Others require they be mailed. Some states permit ballot harvesting. Others not. Some states say an absentee ballot will be counted if received within 10 days after an election. Others require that it be received by election day.

There is a truth about political campaigns seldom mentioned. You cannot properly execute a strategy if you don’t have this information. Those who master the rules usually win. Those who don’t lose.

Next, examine the partisan affiliation and voter turnout history in the jurisdiction where you are running.

Who and how many normally vote varies by year. In presidential years, turnout is highest. In off-year elections, it is often less than half the turnout of Presidential years.

The pool of voters who vote in off-year elections is often demographically very different than those who vote in even-numbered years. Go back four in your jurisdiction and examine voter turnout. Look at variations in the number of votes cast.

Model your expected turnout based upon the year that you are running for office. For example, if you are running for an office with a four year term in an election to be held in 2021, you should look at 2017 as your turnout model. If you are running in 2022, closely examine the turnout in the 2018 election.

The cost of your advertising is affected by the number of voters you have to reach, and that is something you need to know at the outset of a political campaign. Once you do know, you can begin figuring out your election day coalition.

That task will not be completed until you have obtained a demographic profile of your jurisdiction, including age, gender, ethnicity, race, major employers, income and education levels. Voting preference and voting habits are in part dependent on the demography of a voter.

You cannot get on the ballot unless you comply with the legal requirements. You can’t play the game without knowing the rules. You cannot properly strategize a political campaign without knowing the contours of the playing field, the kinds of voters who will likely vote for you, those who won’t, and those who are persuadable.

Everything I have mentioned is something you should know at the outset of a political campaign, before you have fine-tuned your announcement speech, before you develop your campaign strategy.

Political consultant Jay Townsend works with smart, passionate candidates who want to run for office, win elections and make a difference. He has successfully helped candidates learn how to run for the U.S. Senate, how to run for Congress, how to run for Mayor and develop a winning campaign marketing strategy.

How to win an election:

Running for office and knowing how to win an election is a challenge, especially for first time political candidates just learning how to run for office. Discerning the fine points of how to campaign, raise political contributions, and execute a political campaign strategy often requires the help of someone who has served as a political strategist or who has experience as a political consultant.

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