Voting 101

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Born In The U.S.A.? You Can Run For President — Here's How
02.09.2004 9:58 PM EST

Although this election year marks the third time Caroline Killeen, a 70-year-old former Catholic nun from Arizona, has run for president on a marijuana-reform platform, she remains unknown to most voters.

Killeen is not alone in her nearly anonymous candidacy. Every electoral term, hundreds of regular citizens fight common sense, an entrenched political establishment and uninterested media to run for president of the United States. Some are exasperated by the incumbent, while others have a specific message for the masses, or are simply a tad eccentric. But all of them have the constitutional right, as natural-born citizens age 35 or older, to see their names on the ballot alongside the professional politicians, military men and millionaires.

Some low-profile candidates know what's up, others don't. For those who don't, here's a tip: Most experts agree there are three campaign essentials to worry about — ballot access, fund raising and grass-roots efforts.

Declaring Your Candidacy And Getting On The Ballot

Government-authorized ballots didn't exist before 1888. There were no petitions, filing fees or declarations of candidacy. Political parties would simply print their ballots and distribute them. Voters could even make their own ballots or alter a party-printed version. Ballot access laws, fairly lenient until the 1930s, have become increasingly stringent.

Today, states usually require from 250 to 25,000 signatures to get on the ballot. In some states, signatures must be from registered voters, while others require signatures from each congressional district. New York requires more than 51,000 signatures to get on the state ballot. This alone may seem like a difficult task, but as many of these freelancers have demonstrated, it's not entirely out of reach.

Nicholas Sumbles, a 48-year-old volunteer for the Constitution Party, single-handedly got his party on the Maryland and Delaware ballots this year. Juscha Robinson managed Ralph Nader's ballot drive in 2000 while holding down her day job as an attorney. This election cycle she's managing the process for the Green Party.

A major disadvantage of anonymity is that incumbent presidents, dissenting front-runners and celebrities can bypass petition circulation if a state's secretary simply deems them "generally recognized." General recognition includes extensive media coverage and appearing on the ballot for primary elections in other states. It's a privilege rarely bestowed on lesser-known candidates. In some states, like New Hampshire, candidates with enough cash can also pay a large fee and buy their way onto a ballot.

Brother Can You Spare A Million Dimes?

Some people think you need millions and millions of dollars to campaign for president, but candidates have found ways to get by without spending exorbitant amounts. This year, Republican candidate Bill Wyatt (yes, Bush is not running uncontested) made his way from Los Angeles to the New Hampshire primary by car. "I am building a campaign of ideas, rather than on private donations!" he shouted over the static of his cellular phone and wind that rushed in his open window along a Minnesota highway.

Killeen, the pot-promoting nun, pedaled her way across the United States and sold bumper stickers that read: "Let Clinton inhale, legalize marijuana." Green Party candidate Lorna Salzman won't attend any Green Party primary that won't pay her room and board. And Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manger, developed innovative ways to use the Internet to raise money.

Uncle Sam also lends a hand, but only to candidates who raise $100,000. Once they hit that mark, the Federal Election Commission considers them legitimate and will match campaign contributions dollar for dollar. But even with government help, lesser-known candidates hardly ever come close to the figures that most prime-time candidates raise.

Shaking Hands, Kissing Babies

So a candidate gets his name on a ballot or two and pads his treasury with enough money to get him through the first round of primaries. What's next? Every candidate, big or small, has thousands of speeches to make and hands to shake before reaching the White House. The grass roots — the people who will actually cast their votes — have to be rallied.

A successful grass-roots effort is dependent upon motivated people ready to spread the message and divvy up the work of a hopeful candidate. Green Party candidate David Cobb said he prefers 10 "fired up, inspired volunteers" to a check for $100,000. What? From ballot access circulation to fund raising to representation on behalf of a candidate, the value of volunteerism is extraordinary. Pat Buchanan spent $250,000 in 2000 to get on the Texas ballot, but the Green Party spent less than a tenth of that amount with the help of an army of volunteers.

Channeling the enthusiasm of potential supporters is essential. Take a page from Howard Dean's handbook. He relied on his message to motivate 500,000 volunteers and then capitalized on their support. Dean used Internet resources to make his campaign accessible for volunteers to meet up, contribute money, and talk to other volunteers and the campaign staff through blogs. By giving a certain amount of campaign control to the volunteers, Dean not only got his message out, he raised enormous amounts of money — sometimes nearly $1 million in one day.

If there's anything to be learned from the underdogs, it's that a potential president doesn't need a permanent residence on the Fortune 500 list or a temporary seat in D.C. The ability to inspire and connect with people can be just as valuable as political or financial stature. Though lesser-known candidates complain that big money often trumps big ideas, they're still pulling in votes. Wyatt received 153 votes — 0.2 percent of the total — in the New Hampshire primary. And Caroline Killeen drew 31 votes from the Granite State. Not too bad considering she backpacked through Italy during primary week.

To check out some of the hundreds of candidates for president, visit Project Vote Smart.

For more political news, insight into the 2004 presidential election and information on registering to vote, check out

—Nastassia Lopez

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