Running for New York City Council District 39 is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m an educational leader, a mom, a pandemic learning wrangler of a third-grader; I started a school, parented a colicky baby, and even survived sudden cardiac arrest. Getting on the ballot beats all of that. Our current, flawed Board of Elections (BOE) nearly ended my campaign before I got on the ballot because of its traps and “gotchas,” which seem more suited for perpetuating the current political class. This is not democracy.
As a first-time candidate, I did my homework. I read the BOE materials. When I had questions, I emailed them. When I had follow-up questions, I called them. I read and reread everything about the candidate qualification process to ensure I understood the requirements. Everything said I needed enough signatures from within District 39 to be on the ballot, so I did just that. Afterward, my husband, Liam, and I even submitted my BOE paperwork two days early, out of an abundance of caution.
The week after our submission the bad news began: The BOE notified me that my signature cover sheet was wrong. We spoke to a clerk, rectified the issue, and resubmitted. To the BOE, however, fixing mistakes is disqualifying: After I fixed the cover sheet, the BOE wrote again, saying I was kicked off the ballot because the new cover sheet did not say “Amended.”
I’ve been an educator for over 20 years; I’m familiar with red tape. For want of a word the BOE itself made necessary, I was disqualified. For want of a word, I needed to get a lawyer, go to court, and appear before a judge. Though the judge ruled in our favor, I started thinking: I was lucky to be able to afford a lawyer, but what about other candidates who don’t have the supports I have?
Our city gives new candidates a fighting chance to win office and serve their communities, like Ranked Choice Voting and the 8:1 Matching Funds Program. These initiatives are a good start, but it’s time for the next step: It’s time for us to reform the BOE process so it promotes and amplifies new voices.
When Liam and I first started this journey, we laughed at the notion of needing a legal team; the joke, however, was on us. That “A” word on a cover sheet cost us a lot in time, stress, and money. I can’t get any of that back, and I’m lucky to have had savings to retain a lawyer and go to court, but I vow to make it easier for the next first-time candidate. Campaign funds should help candidates reach voters, not pay for lawyers to stay on the ballot. We should be supporting people new to politics who want to run, not creating artificial barriers to entry.
Join me in helping make our city a place where ANYONE with the motivation and the vision can run for political office.
Jessica Simmons is running to represent District 39 (Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods) in City Council.