In an open letter released Tuesday, five of Boston’s six mayoral candidates urged the state to relax the signature-gathering requirements to get on the ballot for the 2021 election, citing ongoing risks posed by the pandemic.
“Our ability to campaign for office and access the ballot in a manner consistent with public health is currently undermined by state laws requiring us to collect a high number of ‘in-person’ signatures in order to appear on ballots in the city of Boston,” said John Barros, City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Annissa Essabi George, acting Mayor Kim Janey and state Rep. John Santiago.
“As the Supreme Judicial Court found in an opinion last spring, asking candidates and campaigns to engage with large numbers of individuals at close quarters to collect signatures poses a public health risk and increases the likelihood of infection with the deadly virus that causes COVID-19,” they added.
The letter was addressed to Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin; Michelle Tassinari, Galvin’s legal counsel; and the two chairs of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws, Sen. Barry Finegold (D - 2nd Essex and Middlesex) and Rep. Daniel Ryan (D - 2nd Suffolk).
That 2020 SJC ruling — in response to a suit brought by Democratic congressional candidate Robbie Goldstein, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin O’Connor and Democratic state House candidate Melissa Bower Smith — significantly altered requirements for the September 2020 primary ballot. It halved the number of signatures necessary, extended filing deadlines for certain candidates and allowed the use of electronic signatures.
The new open letter was also signed by several candidates running for Boston City Council, including Kelly Bates, Alex Gray, David Halbert and current Councilors Michael Flaherty and Julia Mejia. Each of them needs to get 1,500 signatures to make the ballot for the September 2021 preliminary election, while mayoral candidates need 3,000.
The COVID context has changed significantly since April 2020, when the SJC issued the aforementioned ruling. At that time, cases and deaths were rising in Massachusetts. Now, cases and deaths are declining. And in Boston proper, the case positivity rate is dropping as vaccination rates increase. The most recent data from the Boston Public Health Commission puts the seven-day rolling average for community positivity at 4.9% as of April 11, with hospital capacity and utilization steady. Some 49% of white residents, 48% of Asian residents, 38% of Black residents and 35% of Latino residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But Patrick Roath, an attorney at Ropes & Gray who’s organizing the push for altered requirements in Boston, said it’s still too soon to return to the framework that existed prior to the pandemic.
“Certainly, cases have been trending down, but that’s new — cases were trending up just a few weeks ago,” said Roath, who also represented Goldstein, O’Connor and Bower Smith last year. “And we don’t know quite where this thing is going still, partly because of the new variants that are out there.
“Instead of having to worry about this — instead of people having to make these split-second decisions when someone shows up on their doorstep with a clipboard — we think that the safest, and frankly the easier, thing to do is just to remove that concern."
“Candidates for mayor of Boston have to go out there and find 3,000 people to sign this,” he added. “And each voter can only sign for one candidate for mayor of Boston. That’s a lot of people. It’s a lot harder for the campaigns, and right now, it’s a bit less safe for ordinary voters.”
The only mayoral candidate not to sign the letter, City Councilor Michelle Wu, noted that last week she backed a council resolution urging Galvin and the Legislature to reduce the number of signatures required, allow the use of electronic signatures and/or allow voters to provide signatures to multiple candidates. The first two steps are also suggested in the open letter.
“I was very supportive of my colleague Lydia Edwards’ resolution to make sure the council was on record in expressing the need for safety throughout this election, and I am steadfastly in support of that sentiment,” Wu said.
But Wu also suggested that it’s late in the 2021 campaign cycle to be proposing significant changes to the way candidates are vetted.
“We are exactly one week away from getting the printed signature papers in hand to begin the process of getting on the ballot,” she said. “This is five business days for the state Legislature and others to act."
“We are very far into the campaign season,” she added. “This is not just about a pandemic-year conversation. For every election, we should have same-day voter registration … mail-in ballots permanently, early voting permanently.”
Wu also said that, as the signature-gathering process progresses, her campaign will take concrete steps aimed at protecting public health.
“There’s been a lot of thought, over many, many weeks, about how to do this in a way that is as safe as possible, given the circumstances,” she said. “We are really pushing to not have just a small number of people trying to collect as many signatures from strangers as possible — but rather a much larger number of people, working within their own pods or networks or families, to collect a smaller number of signatures.
“It does change the structure of it and the planning of it,” Wu added. “But we are confident that we will make sure our signers and volunteers and team are safe throughout this.”