After serving eight terms in Congress, Tom Coleman got used to asking people to vote for him. This Election Day, though, Coleman camped out in front of a Virginia precinct asking for signatures on behalf of another candidate.
As voters arrived at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria on a crisp fall morning to vote in state and local elections Tuesday, Coleman greeted them, holding a clipboard with a stack of petitions, a pen, and a blue “Kasich For Us” sticker affixed to the back. His job—one that’s usually reserved for volunteers and low-level staffers—was to collect as many signatures as possible to help his onetime House colleague, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, qualify for the 2016 Republican presidential primary in Virginia.
By 8:15 a.m., Coleman was an hour into his day and had 15 signatures to show for it. “I had no idea if I’d even get one,” Coleman joked, noting he had never done this before.
Though Kasich and other presidential candidates are spending most of their campaign time in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, their campaigns are busy meeting qualifications for the primary ballot in many other states across the country. While some states ask only for signed paperwork or a filing fee, others require thousands of petition signatures from registered voters. Virginia has some of the strictest requirements: 5,000 signatures, including at least 200 from each of the state’s 11 congressional districts, submitted by Dec. 10. In 2012, every presidential campaign except Mitt Romney’s and Ron Paul’s failed to meet Virginia’s threshold, which used to be even higher.
The 2015 elections provided the best opportunity left for petition-gatherers to find crowds entirely comprised of registered voters. So campaigns dispatched volunteers and field staffers to precincts around Virginia, looking for voters to support their ballot-access efforts.
“You go fishing where the fish are,” as Coleman put it.
Just before 9 a.m., Coleman snared another one for Kasich: former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who is planning to run for governor in 2017.
“Hey Tom! How’re you doing?” a surprised Gillespie exclaimed as he arrived at the polling place with his wife, Cathy. After exchanging pleasantries, Coleman secured signatures from both Gillespies.
Barely a moment had passed before another petition-gatherer approached the couple. This time, it was Karaina Callahan, a recent college graduate aiding Ben Carson’s campaign. She had been at the school since just after 6 a.m., when the polls opened. “We actually did one for Ben Carson” already, Cathy Gillespie told her.
Had a volunteer for Lindsey Graham’s campaign stuck around just a bit longer, the Gillespies likely would have fielded one more request for their autographs before heading inside to vote.
The volunteers at the elementary school were just one small part of a massive effort by presidential campaigns which, Virginia Republicans said, are far more prepared than their 2012 counterparts were. Some campaigns began training volunteers and circulating petitions as early as July, and most have maintained a consistent presence at local party meetings, county fairs, gun shows, and popular restaurants over the past few months. In addition, Republican groups around the state have been proactive about getting candidates’ petitions in front of activists in a way they weren’t in previous cycles.
“The requirement before, while it was higher than it is this year, didn’t really prevent campaigns from getting on the ballot. The ones who didn’t just waited very late to start,” said Michael Thomas, the first vice chairman of the Virginia Republican Party. “The campaigns are more aware of it, and a lot of Republican activists and leaders see the value of having as full a field as possible.”
The Kasich campaign dispatched roughly 200 volunteers to all corners of the state Tuesday, covering all 11 congressional districts and 10 percent of Virginia’s total precincts. Bret Coulson, Kasich’s campaign director in Virginia, said he expected to collect between 4,000 and 5,000 signatures on Election Day alone. He added that he hopes to file more than 7,500 signatures with the state elections board, just in case some of them aren’t valid.
Carson’s team sent between 50 and 100 volunteers around Virginia on Tuesday, asking each of them to collect around 100 signatures—a feat that Callahan accomplished before noon in Alexandria. Spokesman Doug Watts said the campaign already had 5,400 signatures filed away. The Carson campaign is also aiming for 7,500 total, including 200 percent of what’s required in each congressional district, by the December deadline to assure that Carson makes the ballot.
“The Election Day collection really simplifies the process,” said Patricia Phillips, Carson’s Virginia state director. “This will be our big chance.”
State party officials also expected campaigns for several other candidates, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Rand Paul, to have signature-gatherers stationed at polling places around the state.
One candidate who didn’t need to worry about massing volunteers for Election Day: Donald Trump. The real estate mogul announced Monday that he had already submitted 15,000 signatures in Virginia, a Super Tuesday primary state. Next month’s deadline will represent a key organizational test for other campaigns that are expanding their operations outside of the early-nominating states.
“It’s an organizational exercise that requires a presence in every district in the state, and that’s not something that can be developed overnight,” said Chris LaCivita, a Virginia-based strategist who’s advising Paul’s campaign. “Having active participation and presence is half the ball game.”
Most campaigns appear to have that in Virginia. So with the filing deadline now just over five weeks away, Republicans in the state aren’t expecting history to repeat itself.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the same problem this time to get on the ballot,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, cochair of Kasich’s Virginia campaign. “For anybody who’s got their eyes wide open, this shouldn’t be a heavy lift.”
Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.