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With Legislature stalled, Mass. high court to tackle coronavirus ballot issue

The Boston courthouse that is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
The Boston courthouse that is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.Lane Turner/GLOBE STAFF FILE

Massachusetts’ highest court will hear oral arguments Thursday over whether it should relax the legal requirements for candidates to get on the ballot, wading into an issue bogged down by partisan squabbling in the state Legislature.

The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments by telephone in the lawsuit brought by three candidates who say the state’s signature requirements present unconstitutional barriers to the ballot in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to loosen the state’s existing signature requirements for all candidates seeking elected office in Massachusetts this year, perhaps by reducing the number of signatures required to get on the ballot or extending the deadline by which they must file them.

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“It’s an unusual case for sure,” said Gerry McDonough, an elections law expert who worked for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 campaign. “It’s an unusual time right now, so I don’t know what the SJC will do with this. There’s a public health emergency, and it makes it very hard for candidates to get signatures.”

The SJC may be their best shot at relief. The Legislature, which has the authority to change the requirements, doesn’t appear likely to act.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has been publicly silent on the issue. A bill introduced in the House weeks ago to significantly cut the required signatures for all candidates has languished.

“Self-protection and one-party rule appears to be the number-one priority for House Speaker Bob DeLeo,” said Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons, accusing House Democrats of wanting to keep signature limits where they are to make it harder for challengers to get on the ballot.

A spokeswoman for DeLeo declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal action.

In the Senate, it was a Republican — a member of Lyons’ party — who blocked legislation to address the issue of signatures.

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Senate President Karen E. Spilka and Joint Committee on Rules chairwoman Joan Lovely, both Democrats, introduced a bill that would cut in half the required signatures for federal and county offices, plus the Governor’s Council. The legislation would keep intact existing signature requirements for state House and Senate candidates, which are 150 and 300, respectively.

But one of their Republican colleagues, state Senator Ryan Fattman of Sutton, blocked the legislation when Senate Democrats tried to pass it earlier this week. The Senate plans to try again Thursday.

Fattman’s wife Stephanie is the Worcester County register of probate, and she is seeking re-election this year. Both she and any potential challengers for her seat would only have to collect 500 signatures under the Senate bill, as opposed to the current requirement of 1,000 signatures.

Two Democrats have set up campaign accounts as part of a potential run for the seat.

In an e-mail to The Boston Globe, Fattman said his wife’s campaign did not influence his objection. “I’m not in the business of picking winners and losers. I believe we should do what’s fair for everyone and treat everyone equally,” he said.

He said he objected because he was not given enough advance notice of the bill before it was “rushed” to the floor.

"I believe in a transparent and bipartisan legislative process and it is imperative that we maintain those tenets during these unprecedented times,” he said.

Senate Democrats pushed back on that criticism.

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Spilka said the bill was “the result of countless conversations over several weeks."

As for why the bill only reduced signatures for some offices, she said in a statement that they drew a distinction between offices that require 1,000 signatures or more.

“The bill reflects a general consensus view that offices that require 1,000 signatures or more should be reduced in light of the COVID-19 emergency. It is important to strike a balance between promoting access to the ballot and ensuring candidates demonstrate sufficient community support for their candidacies," she said.

The Senate also appears poised to move first on addressing what many election experts believe is a more urgent issue: expanding access to voting-by-mail.

Senate majority leader Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat, introduced legislation Wednesday that would enable any Massachusetts voter to request a mail-in absentee ballot for both the state primary and general election in 2020, as well as allow early voting in the Sept. 1 primary.

Spilka supports the bill, which is set to get a hearing soon.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.