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EDITORIAL

The court acts where the Legislature fails

The pandemic demanded looser signature requirements for getting both candidates and questions on the ballot. It should have been an easy win for Beacon Hill but was instead left to the courts.

A voter casts a ballot in the Massachusetts presidential primaries, March 3, in Seekonk.
A voter casts a ballot in the Massachusetts presidential primaries, March 3, in Seekonk.David Goldman/Associated Press

The Massachusetts Legislature whiffed on its chance to protect the integrity of the state’s elections, forcing the courts to come up with a way to ensure that candidates could still safely secure a place on the primary ballot and that ballot questions could be posed without imperiling campaigners to gather in-person signatures. Luckily, the courts delivered, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should be let off the hook for their failure to protect the rights of the people they represent.

In normal times, the need to collect signatures can help weed out frivolous candidates and fringe ideas. But in-person signature-gathering directly contradicts the guidance from public health authorities to avoid close contact that can spread the coronavirus, which is why candidates had implored the Legislature to adjust the rules soon after the outbreak began, in March.

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It wasn’t until April 17 that the Supreme Judicial Court ordered a sensible adjustment to the state’s ballot-access rules. Candidates got a little extra time, and they now need to gather only half as many signatures. Perhaps most important, the court authorized the use of electronic signatures, enabling candidates to gather signatures without in-person interactions that could violate “social distancing” recommendations and spread the virus.

The court’s initial ruling did not cover ballot questions, which, like candidates, typically require signatures from voters in order to appear on the ballot. Four ballot committees, representing citizens seeking ballot votes on measures related to ranked-choice voting, nursing-home funding, beer and wine sales, and automobile repair, went to court. A single justice of the SJC, Barbara Lenk, engineered a deal last week to allow electronic signatures for ballot questions, too.

Erecting — or, through inaction, choosing to leave in place — unreasonable ballot access rules is antithetical to constitutional democracy. Which is why it was so astonishing that the Legislature failed either to reduce the signature requirement, extend the deadline, or allow electronic signatures in lieu of ink. In its initial ruling, the SJC rightly chided lawmakers who failed “to remedy the constitutional deficiencies after having the opportunity to do so.”

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Indeed, the matter never should have reached the courts. Protecting the election is a job that state lawmakers should have wanted to handle themselves, to demonstrate they care about the democratic rights of the people who elect them. Wisconsin has come under fire — and rightly so —for letting its presidential primary proceed during the outbreak, but expecting signature-gathering to continue also forces citizens to choose between democracy and their health.

Clearly, it’s possible: As one justice pointed out in the April 17 SJC ruling, legislators can pass laws quickly when the spirit moves them. The Legislature has passed a number of coronavirus-related bills in informal session. And compared to the blazing speed with which both houses were able to pass their last pay raise — to which they attached an emergency preamble allowing the raises to go into effect immediately — it is unfortunate that lawmakers can’t act to protect the integrity of the state’s elections during an actual emergency.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.