Massachusetts Signature Requirements Put Volunteers, Voters At Coronavirus Risk

As the nation continues to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, calls to engage in social distancing are sharply on the rise. Avoiding large groups and staying at home has been shown to be an effective way to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus. As a result, many states have called on workers to stay home and only go into the community when absolutely necessary.

On Monday, Governor Baker joined a growing list of states and ordered the closure of all non-essential private businesses, as well as issue a “stay-at-home” advisory. Prior, he had also signed off on bills waiving the one week waiting period for unemployment insurance and extended the tax deadline for certain small businesses. As his administration navigates the increasingly volatile situation, a number of private businesses have also stepped forward to help promote best practices, exploring ways to provide the option of working remotely.

However, even as significant portions of our society continue to innovate and adapt to face this pandemic, there remain many parts of the law that lag behind. With discussions starting to take place across the country about preparing for the November election in the midst of the current crisis, the question of what impact the rapidly changing environment will have on ballot access itself still remains. As campaigns work to meet upcoming submission deadlines, they must now also contend with additional challenges posed by the virus.

Calling for citizens to avoid unnecessary interactions while still requiring campaigns to collect voter signatures creates a unique dilemma. Candidates and campaign volunteers who do engage in canvassing risk exposure to the virus and the potential to spread it even further. Deciding to follow best medical practices by engaging in social distancing and waiting for the current situation to improve runs the risk of severely jeopardizing ballot access and could potentially deny voters the opportunity to have a choice at the polls.

As the number of cases continue to balloon, the need to maximize social distancing becomes increasingly critical. Kevin O’Connor, a Dover attorney challenging Senator Ed Markey, recently suspended his canvassing operation outside of limited personal interactions after his father tested positive for coronavirus. In a press release, O’Connor explains that his mother actively collected signatures for his campaign and he’s sensitive to the possibility that canvassing could’ve played a role in transmission.

Another barricade to the process has been turning in signatures for certification once they are collected. In a video shared by his campaign, O’Connor shows his campaign manager unable to drop-off completed nomination papers to the Hanover town hall — a side effect of many municipalities closing their physical doors to the public.

Concern that we need to address the laws governing ballot access is also not limited to any one candidate or political party. Citing health and safety concerns, the Libertarian Association of Massachusetts recently approved a resolution at their remotely-held state convention calling for the use of online-petitioning for ballot access in the same manner that online voter registration is conducted. They also voiced support for a filing fee in lieu of nomination signatures and reducing the overall number of signatures required to get an initiative question on the ballot.

Joining them have been the Massachusetts High School Democrats and Teenage Republicans, who issued a joint letter of their own to legislative leadership calling for a temporary modification of the law. The letter noted that both organizations easily engage in thousands of social interactions and could be “asymptomatic disease vectors” due to their young age. The two groups also acknowledged the devastating impact that coronavirus could play on the ballot initiative process, as campaigns would need to collect an additional 13,000 signatures by July if a potential question appears before the legislature and fails to garner the necessary threshold.

Seeing that Secretary William F. Galvin lacks the authority to temporarily modify election law on his own, responsibility is squarely on the legislature. Whether that modification comes in the form of a filing fee option or a decision to delay deadlines for submitting nomination papers in the hopes that things will improve, it remains imperative that action be taken quickly. No person should feel as if they need to choose between liberty and safety, especially when quick, commonsense legislative action can outline a clear pathway to both.

At a time in our history where every new day feels like a week, the people need to know that they still have the ability to influence and interact with their government. Ensuring that our ballot access laws reflect the brevity of the current situation will help further protect the health of all residents of the Commonwealth and secure the integrity of our electoral process.

Elected Library Trustee, Constable. Ballot access reform advocate. Arts enthusiast. Loud trans woman. Articles and opinions are completely mine.