In the course of a few weeks, the coronavirus crisis has transformed the way we work, learn, get healthcare, and socialize.
Still unchanged, at least for now? The signature-gathering process that determines whether individuals seeking elected office get on the ballot in Massachusetts.
Right now, candidates running for U.S. Senate need to submit 10,000 certified signatures to make the ballot this fall. The requirement is lower for U.S. House candidates (2,000), and lower still for state Senate and state House hopefuls (300 and 150, respectively). District and county candidates are slated to submit them to city and town clerks later this month; for federal candidates, it’s early May.
Even in ordinary times, signature gathering is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process: think of the people who hover outside grocery stores with clipboards, trying to catch your eye while you pretend to text or look for your car. Democratic candidates can only obtain signatures from Democrats and unenrolled voters; Republican candidates need Republicans and unenrolleds; and assorted errors can result in large numbers of signatures being disqualified.
Now, though, the state’s adherence to requirements established before COVID-19 risks pushing candidates of all types into precisely the sort of interactions Massachusetts residents are currently being told to avoid.
“People want to know who you are, what the campaign is about, what the signature’s being used for,” said Kevin O’Connor, a Republican running for US Senate. “And that’s appropriate. But that takes time and interaction, a person-to-person conversation —and then it involves handing the person materials, and a clipboard, and a pen to sign.”
O’Connor believes his father, who acquired COVID-19 earlier this year, may have contracted it from his mother, who became sick while gathering signatures on O’Connor’s behalf. O’Connor’s mother was never tested, and both parents have since recovered.
Now, O’Connor is part of a bipartisanlawsuit which claims existing signature-fathering requirements pose an “unconstitutionally severe” burden on Massachusetts candidates and voters.
The lawsuit notes that several other states have already modified their processes — by reducing the number of signatures candidates are required to gather, extending the allotted time, or allowing electronic signature gathering — and asks that Massachusetts take similar steps or jettison signature requirements altogether.
Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who’s named in the suit, has said he’s not capable of waiving those requirements or extending the timeline. Those modifications require legislative action, according to Galvin.
On Monday, the Massachusetts Senate was poised to take up a bill that would halve signature requirements for US Senate and House candidates, while leaving the requirements for state legislative seats unchanged.
That approach was recently backed by Governor Charlie Baker. But during Monday's Senate session, state Senator Ryan Fattman (R-Webster) objected, derailing debate and guaranteeing that the bill will be passed no earlier than April 16.
Fattman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. But in a statement, State Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) voiced continued support for the bill's provisions, saying it "strike[s] a balance between promoting access to the ballot and ensuring candidates demonstrate sufficient community support for their candidates."
Even if the Senate legislation ultimately passes, though, it’s not clear that the Massachusetts House will agree to change existing requirements. A House bill filed by state Representative Patrick Joseph Kearney (D-Scituate) would go even further than the Senate’s proposal, cutting requirements for all offices to a third of the norm. For example, a US Senate candidate would now have to obtain 3,333 signatures, and a state House candidate would need 50.
It's an approach that has the support of Jim Lyons, the chairman of the Mass. GOP.
“Let’s do it for all candidates, right across the board,” Lyons said. “This isn’t a Democrat thing or a Republican thing; this is just the right thing to do. Why put people at risk?”
There, is, however, no indication that the House plans to take up Kearney’s bill or any similar proposals in the near future.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
As the legislature weighs whether or not to act, candidates are using alternate approaches to try to meet existing requirements.
Melissa Bower Smith, a Democratic state rep candidate from Hingham, is joining O’Connor in the aforementioned lawsuit. After suffering an acute respiratory illness earlier this year, Bower Smith says, she’s at increased risk from COVID-19 — so she and her team are relying on phone banks and direct mail to get the requisite signatures.
They are, Smith contends, poor substitutes.
“When I stand in front of someone and ask them to sign a paper, it’s a personal conversation,” Smith says. “I can point to the exact part of the page where they sign, give them the right color of ink to sign with, stop them if they start to make a stray mark or fill in something that’s not supposed to be filled in.
“Right now, I’m mailing them to people I know have signed lots of these kind of things before. I have more than 150 out, and they’re coming back in — but some of them are signed illegibly, or maybe they’re signed in teal as opposed to blue or black, or maybe they’ve filled my name in in a place where the town clerk was supposed to write or the secretary of state was supposed to certify.
“All these hiccups are making the process take that much longer.”
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to her arguments in the lawsuit brought by O'Connor, Smith, and Democratic congressional candidate Robert Goldstein on Thursday.
As the electoral calendar ticks ahead, meanwhile, the prospect of the Massachusetts House and Senate agreeing on a fix may seem increasingly unlikely. But Lyons, the Mass. GOP chairman, notes that Beacon Hill can act decisively when it chooses to.
"I know how quickly things can get done, having served in the legislature for eight years," Lyons, a former state rep, said.
"When Speaker DeLeo wanted to extend his term as speaker, and change the rules to get that done, he did it in a day.
"He did that to protect his speakership. It seems to me that to protect democracy, we ought to do the same thing."
Correction: This article has been updated to correctly identify the signature requirement for U.S. House candidates. It is 2,000, not 5,000.