The e-mail subject line was notable for an incumbent United States senator: “Help get Ed on the ballot."
That was the message the campaign of Edward J. Markey sent out Monday night, asking supporters to help gather some of the thousands of signatures the Malden Democrat still needs to appear on the Sept. 1 primary ballot — a ballot for which challenger Joe Kennedy III is much closer to qualifying.
The Markey campaign has about 7,000 of the 10,000 signatures from registered Democratic or unenrolled voters it needs, campaign manager John Walsh said in an interview.
“I don’t have any anxiety” about getting the rest of the signatures before the early May deadline, he said.
But it is going to take a lot more work — and money — to collect the remaining signatures than it typically would, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak. No longer can his field organizers and volunteers head out to supermarkets and town meetings armed with clipboards and pens, as the Markey campaign planned along with numerous other candidates down the ballot. Concern about the virus forced the state Democratic party to cancel more than 100 local caucuses at which Markey and others planned to collect signatures, too.
Now, the Markey campaign is asking supporters to visit a website and fill out a form so the campaign can mail them a paper copy of a Markey’s nomination papers. After signing the papers, people must them mail them back to the campaign in the prepaid, preaddressed envelope provided by the campaign.
“Our organizers and volunteers are working on this important step in the process and we expect to complete the requirement by May 5th for ballot access through an active, person-to-person organizing program,” Walsh said in a statement to The Boston Globe. The staffers are using all “the virtual tools available" to them.
The fact that Markey, who has served in Washington for more than four decades, didn’t yet have the necessary signatures to get on the ballot raised some eyebrows in political circles.
“That is surprising to me,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. While she’s seen anecdotal evidence to suggest Markey enjoys strong grassroots energy, including on college campuses, “you’re going up against a Kennedy. You certainly don’t want to have these sorts of rudimentary problems.”
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant, said the Markey campaign would have been wise to “double down” on its signature collecting efforts when news about the potential severity of the virus broke. “They did not. As a result, they’re faced with the very expensive, laborious proposition of mailing signature pages to individuals,” and then tracking down those folks to make sure they return the sheets.
“The effort you have to put in to that is gargantuan, and it’s very expensive,” she said.
It’s an expense Kennedy doesn’t have to grapple with. His campaign delivered more than 15,000 signatures to town and city clerks to be certified as valid, after which the campaign will send them to the secretary of state.
“The number of signatures we collected for Joe reflect the enthusiasm around his candidacy and the strength of our grassroots organizing operation," said a campaign spokeswoman.
Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager, said the campaign had focused its organizing muscle on winning as many local caucuses and pledged delegates as it could, keen to secure the party’s endorsement at the May 31 convention. And the Markey team was successful, winning what it says was more than 70 percent of the committed delegates at the caucuses that did take place (the Kennedy team disputes this number). As part of an agreement to cancel the convention, the Kennedy campaign agreed to stipulate that Markey wins the nod from the state party.
“It was a deliberate strategy,” he said of emphasizing caucuses over signatures. Now, the extra work needed to collect the remaining signatures will strengthen the campaign’s connections with supporters, he argued.
Markey is far from the only candidate having to figure out the logistical challenge of getting people to sign nominating papers without human contact. The various signature requirements place a far heavier burden on candidates further down ballot.
Typically, candidates collect more signatures than the minimum to ensure they have enough after town and city clerks verify that all submitted are valid.
There’s bipartisan support for legislation that would significantly lower the necessary signatures to get on the ballot for various positions, including endorsements from the state Democratic and Republican parties. But so far there’s been no movement in the Legislature.
“The inaction on the part of the Legislature is a decision," said Kevin O’Connor, a Republican attorney who is running in the Republican primary for Markey’s Senate seat. He has argued forcefully for changes to the signature requirements because of the risks involved due to coronavirus.
In the meantime, his campaign is undertaking its own “unconventional efforts" to gather thousands of more signatures, including “expensive” mailings, robocalls, even coordinating with supporters to leave a petition on a table someplace, secured by a rock, while encouraging people to come with their own pens to sign.
"My heart also goes out to the candidates who are running for more local offices who are trying to step up and do the right thing during probably the most difficult time ever, and we as a society need to encourage that, not to discourage it,” he said.