Voters’ ability to make choices and chart their collective future — from multiple options — is the essence of democracy. So it should trouble Massachusetts residents that on Sunday, Dover lawyer Kevin O’Connor suspended a key part of his campaign for the Republican US Senate nomination because, quite understandably, he doesn’t want to continue gathering the 10,000 signatures he needs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Meeting voters, passing around pens and clipboards — the signature-gathering process is “very physically interactive,” O’Connor said. “The current [signature] requirements are completely out of alignment with all the health guidance we’re getting.”
Policy makers in Washington and on Beacon Hill have started looking for ways to make participation in the upcoming primary and general elections safe amid the coronavirus outbreak, including by expanding vote-by-mail. But there’s a much more immediate problem for the democratic integrity of the election: rules in many states, including Massachusetts, that require candidates to submit those handwritten, hard-copy signatures by deadlines that are approaching fast. Those rules must not put campaigns in an unconscionable dilemma of either ignoring public health orders or depriving voters of choices in the fall.
For O’Connor, the potential harm of asking volunteers to venture out is starkly personal: His mother has helped him gather signatures, and his 86-year-old father was just hospitalized after testing positive for the coronavirus. “It is entirely possible that the virus was introduced into my family through the petition-gathering process, and it is possible that volunteers for campaigns across the state are unwittingly spreading the infection throughout the public," he said.
It is feasible, albeit cumbersome, to conduct a signature drive by mail. Still, under such exceptional circumstances, the Legislature should just reduce the number of signatures required in this electoral cycle. After all, the precise number of signatures required is arbitrary in the first place. The requirement helps weed out frivolous candidates, but it shouldn’t be treated as sacrosanct. Reducing the signature requirements now would ensure that when the September party primaries and November general election roll around, voters will have the fullest range of choices. It would also put Massachusetts in line with hard-hit New York, which reduced signature requirements to 30 percent of the normal level.
That reduction should apply to all elections this cycle, including for the congressional seat being vacated by Joseph P. Kennedy III. House candidates currently need to gather 2,000 certified signatures (in New York, after the recent change to the requirements, House candidates need only 375 signatures). The exact numerical requirement varies, but anyone who wants to run for governor’s council, county offices, state senator, or state representative needs to collect signatures too. Deadlines are April 28 for local offices and May 5 for Congress.
Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin, whose office oversees elections, noted that campaigns had weeks to gather signatures before the pandemic broke out here, and that delaying deadlines would have a cascading effect on other electoral dates. For the moment, he encouraged candidates to submit whatever signatures they already have, so that his office can assess the impact of the coronavirus. But he didn’t rule out revisiting the requirements. “If things get worse, we’ll change,” said Galvin, “I’m not hesitant, when circumstances require, to take action."
The message from health officials is that the pandemic already constitutes a crisis, though, and every social interaction that can be avoided must be. O’Connor made the right call when his campaign stopped public signature-gathering. Democracy shouldn’t stall out as a result.
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