Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Running for Legislature Not So Simple

Legislative hopefuls face strict rules, deadlines, paperwork.

By - May 6th, 2024 11:52 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

It’s a familiar dance for incumbents who have run for the Legislature before, but dozens of first time candidates are learning about the many reports and other hurdles that must be cleared before – hopefully – their name is on the Nov. 5 ballot.

They not only must register a campaign committee, whose treasurer must track and report donations and spending, with the state Ethics Commission. They must also follow a detailed process overseen by the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) to run for office.

“Following correct procedure when obtaining and submitting nomination paper signatures is crucial to ensure ballot placement,” advises a WEC guide for candidates.

Consider the steps that candidates hope lead to the Capitol.

Start with the no-felons rule. The state Constitution says no one may hold any state or local elected office in Wisconsin if they have been convicted of a felony in any court in the United States, unless they have been pardoned of the conviction.

Next, the WEC warns that candidates for the Legislature must have filed three documents by the June 1 deadline to have their name on the November ballot.

First, on a Declaration of Candidacy, candidates must “include their name, home address, their name as it will appear on the ballot, and the specific office for which they are running.” Titles like “Dr” or “PhD” are not allowed. The Declaration must be notarized and the original filed with the WEC.

Second, nomination papers must be submitted in which candidates ask their neighbors to sign petitions supporting their run for a specific office. At least 400 signatures are required to run for the state Senate; at least 200 for the Assembly. WEC officials suggest that candidates submit more signatures than those minimums.

Why? Because circulating nomination papers is a complex process that can lead to candidates being challenged and disqualified, WEC notes.

On nomination papers, candidates must “enter information relevant to themselves, the election at which they will be a candidate, and the office they seek. Correctly filling out the top three lines of the nomination paper form is one of the most important things a candidate can do. If any of the boxes … are filled out incorrectly, [petition signers] might not be provided with all candidate and election information as required by law.”

The nomination papers must also specify a “recognized political party such as Constitution, Democrat, or Republican. A candidate who does not wish to be affiliated with any recognized political party may place a [five word] statement of principle.”

Candidates with friends or family members who help them with their nomination papers must comply with strict rules. Those petition “circulators” do not have to live in the legislative district but must report their address.

Circulators must sign and date each page of signatures and, WEC adds, they “must witness the signature.” The “nomination paper pages may not be left unattended in a public place … [C]circulators may not leave them on the table in a break room, posted on a bulletin board, sitting on the bar at a local watering hole, etc.”

Voters – WEC calls them “electors” – who sign nomination papers must also print their names and give their “residential address, municipality of residence, and the date on which they signed. An elector’s address cannot be a P.O. box. It must be their physical street address. Each elector is only allowed to sign nomination papers for one candidate per office.”

One first-time candidate for an Assembly seat that includes part of Dane County included nomination papers in an “I’m running” introductory mailing to potential constituents who don’t know the candidate. Although the request for signatures includes instructions for how to collect them, it can be a confusing process for voters.

“One or two [petition] signatures … is fine and gets us closer to reaching our goal,” the candidate added.

Nomination papers for candidates for the Legislature must be filed with the WEC by 5 p.m. on June 1.

Then, Elections Commission staff members – and the candidate’s political opponents – review them to make sure circulators and electors complied with all the requirements and signatures are legible.

Challenges to nomination papers happen frequently, but must be filed within three days. The WEC then rules on the challenges, which can deny a candidate access to the ballot.

Candidates should not be surprised if their nomination papers are challenged. “Signature lines that are filled out incorrectly or are missing required information are often subject to challenge,” says the Election Commission guide.

One other report — a statement of economic interest in which a legislative candidate reports a general overview of their financial assets and liabilities — must be filed with the state Ethics Commission.

Then comes the actual campaign, which typically involves months of work for a candidate.

Steven Walters started covering the Legislature in 1988. Contact him at 

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