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In emergency ruling, SJC eases ballot requirements in face of coronavirus

The John Adams Courthouse (left) where the Supreme Judicial Court heard cases before the coronavirus closures.
The John Adams Courthouse (left) where the Supreme Judicial Court heard cases before the coronavirus closures.Barry Chin/Globe staff/file

Massachusetts’ highest court on Friday eased the legal requirements for candidates to get on the ballot this September, agreeing with three candidates who sued, that forcing candidates to comply with existing signature minimums is unconstitutional given the ongoing coronavirus emergency.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling cuts in half the number of signatures required for all candidates to appear on the state’s Sept. 1 primary ballot. The court also, for some offices, extended the deadline by which candidates must submit those signatures to election officials, and it said that Secretary of State William F. Galvin must accept electronic — in addition to the standard ink — signatures.

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“[R]equirements that in ordinary times impose only modest burdens on prospective candidates for public office may significantly interfere with the fundamental right to run for political office in a time of pandemic,” Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote in the court’s decision.

The court specified that the changes apply only to the state’s Sept. 1 primary, and does not affect signature requirements for the general election in November or any other primary in subsequent years.

The SJC ruling was prompted, in part, by a lack of decisive action by the state Legislature to address concerns that some candidates would not be able to safely collect the necessary signatures given the social-distancing protocols in place. Bills have been introduced in both chambers, and the Senate passed its version — which would only reduce signature requirements for federal and county offices — on Thursday, the same day the SJC heard oral arguments in the case.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has been publicly silent on the issue.

During those high court arguments, the justices appeared distressed to be addressing a problem that the Legislature has full authority to solve. More than one of the justices pressed the lawyers over whether the House might take up the matter in coming days.

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That discomfort was apparent in the ruling as well. Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote in a concurring opinion that by reducing the required signatures “we begin to stray into territory reserved for the Legislature.” While a reasonable solution, “this appears to be more of a policy choice best left to the Legislature, which can act with great dispatch when it chooses to do so.”

Kafker also sharply criticized state officials for not having the technological capacity to address the issue by simply accepting electronic signatures instead of “wet” ones signed by a pen. For several pages, he bemoaned the limitations of the state’s current tech infrastructure as described by Galvin’s office, including concerns that local election officials — who certify the signatures candidates have collected — would be unable to open large e-mail attachments containing voters’ signatures, and that those limitations forced the court to take further steps, including reducing the number of required signatures.

“At a time when we need to be fundamentally rethinking what must be done in person and what can instead be done electronically, our electoral process seems dangerously unequipped to adapt to a new paradigm,” he wrote.

The lawsuit was brought by three candidates seeking to get on the Sept. 1 ballot: Kevin O’Connor, a Republican attorney who is running for US Senate; Dr. Robbie Goldstein, a Democrat challenging incumbent US Representative Stephen Lynch; and Melissa Bower Smith, a Democrat from Hingham who is challenging incumbent Democratic state Representative James M. Murphy for his South Shore seat.

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The SJC decision is going to "help an awful lot of candidates get where they were going, and do it without risking anybody’s life,” said Smith. She said she was working hard to collect the 150 signatures she needed before the ruling, reaching out to voters by phone, but the logistics were challenging. Among other issues she encountered, quite a few forms were coming back signed incorrectly or with other markings that could lead Galvin’s office to disqualify them.

“It’s disappointing this didn’t come more quickly from the Legislature, that they didn’t act on this right away," she added.

Thomas G. Shack III didn’t jump into the crowded race for the Democratic nomination for Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District — a seat being vacated by Joseph P. Kennedy III — until mid-February because of the death of his father earlier in the year. Without the SJC ruling, he wouldn’t have been able to collect the 2,000 signatures he needed to make the ballot, the Brookline Democrat said in an interview.

"We now have a shot,” said Shack, a former prosecutor and state comptroller.

Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak halted campaigning, he had set up a secure online version of the nomination papers that supporters can electronically sign. Galvin’s office had quickly told them the form — which allows a person to use their mouse to scrawl their signature — was not acceptable.

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The SJC ruling, however, allows candidates to use forms such as the one Shack designed, though candidates must still provide hard copies of the electronically-signed forms to election officials.

Without allowing electronic signatures, the whole process was skewed to favor incumbents and candidates with lots of money, he said.

“This decision doesn’t make it easy, but it levels the playing field,” he said.

Anecdotal data suggests Shack isn’t the only candidate struggling to meet the signature thresholds during the pandemic. A spokeswoman for Galvin’s office said only two candidates in the Fourth District have submitted signatures to the office so far: Jake Auchincloss, who turned in more than 1,800 signatures, qualifying him for the ballot under the eased requirements, and Alan Khazei, who has filed 745.

Even some incumbent lawmakers, both on Beacon Hill and in federal office, had not finished collecting their signatures before the virus hit.

Senator Edward J. Markey was among the politicians scrambling to collect thousands of signatures in creative ways in recent weeks. His campaign manager, John E. Walsh, praised the SJC decision, but suggested the Malden Democrat was well on his way to getting the signatures he needed without their help lowering the required signatures for the Senate ballot to 5,000 from 10,000.

Markey’s campaign hasn’t filed anything with Galvin’s office yet. His challenger, Kennedy, filed 10,488 signatures two days ago, securing his place on the ballot.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

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