In any normal election year, collecting the required number of signatures to get on a Massachusetts primary ballot would seem to be one of a candidate’s most mundane tasks.
But 2020 is anything but a conventional election year.
As candidates across the Bay State have ditched in-person campaigning due to the coronavirus crisis, office-seekers are scrambling in order to meet normally-unobtrusive signature requirements to get on the September primary ballot.
“Our efforts to gather signatures are proceeding full bore,” Republican United States Senate hopeful Kevin O’Connor said.
For many candidates who are still below their signature threshold, that means mailing out an inordinate number of nomination papers to supporters in their district — and dealing with a logistical nightmare once the documents are sent back.
Candidates must get their nomination papers certified first by the locality the voter signing it resides in, and then by the Secretary of State’s office.
“We’re getting petitions with one or two signatures. And we have to sort through those thousands upon thousands of petitions,” O’Connor said. “We have to sort them out for the right town [and] get them to the appropriate town clerks.”
To get on the primary ballot in a U.S. House race, candidates need 2,000 signatures from district residents. David F. Cavell — a former speechwriter for ex-President Barack Obama who is running in the Massachusetts Fourth Congressional District’s competitive Democratic primary — said that task is normally accomplished by staking out grocery stores and other high-density areas where volunteers and staff members get residents to sign papers.
“The signature-gathering process is a sort of little-known but critical element of the democratic process in Massachusetts,” Cavell said.
Amid the coronavirus crisis, Cavell said he has “had to completely revise” his signature-gathering strategy to focus on mailing nomination papers to supporters to sign. He added that he has set up tables outside some supporters’ homes that “allow people to come and sign at a safe distance” with their own pens.
Ihssane Leckey, one of Cavell’s Democratic primary opponents, described a similar tack. Leckey said she collected over 1,000 signatures before the coronavirus forced campaigns to move away from in-person organizing.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a way,” she said of the new signature-gathering methods.
But the difficulties don’t stop there.
Melissa B. Smith, a candidate for State Representative in the Fourth Norfolk District, said she was hampered in her signature-gathering efforts before the coronavirus hit as she recovered from a respiratory illness. It takes just 150 signatures for state House hopefuls to get on the ballot, but Smith said she expects many papers to get disqualified due to benign mistakes that voters make while filling out the nomination papers.
“Even people who are very familiar with the process of signing nomination papers don’t always remember from campaign to campaign where exactly they’re supposed to sign or what exactly they’re supposed to write,” Smith said. “It’s a significant number that get disqualified in normal circumstances.”
“In these circumstances, with everything moving more slowly — with town halls staying closed, with it being a much more onerous process to even turn them in — it’s just a bigger barrier,” she added. “We need to collect significantly more signatures in order to ensure that we have the minimum required number. And even then, it’s likely that many of them will be rejected.”
Smith, O’Connor, and Democratic U.S. House candidate Robert Goldstein are suing the state to change the signature requirement. The Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments on the case Thursday.
There are also several legislative efforts aimed at reducing signature requirements.
Democratic Senators Karen E. Spilka and Joan B. Lovely introduced a bill that would cut the number of signatures required for federal and county offices in half. Still, the proposed measure would not change the requirements for state House and Senate hopefuls.
Smith said the proposal does not go far enough.
“It’s a bad look, I think,” she said. “It looks like they’re trying to protect incumbents with this.”
Spilka defended the measure in an emailed statement.
“The bill on signatures, which the Senate released to the public on Friday evening, is the result of countless conversations over several weeks,” she wrote. “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.”
Some candidates — like Jordan Meehan, who is challenging State Representative Kevin G. Honan for the Democratic nomination in the 17th Suffolk District — have already gotten their signature requirements out of the way. Meehan said he received confirmation from the Secretary of State’s office Tuesday that his name would appear on the ballot.
“Because we were so organized so early, we got our signature requirement mostly hammered out around Super Tuesday,” he said.
U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) also announced Wednesday that he received confirmation from the Secretary of State that he will appear on the September primary ballot. Kennedy is challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
The Boston Globe reported last week that Markey was around 3,000 signatures shy of the requirement to get his name on the ballot. In an emailed statement to The Crimson, Markey’s campaign manager, John E. Walsh, said the campaign is “confident” it will reach the 10,000 signature threshold.
Jennifer Fries, a Democratic state House candidate who is running in the 24th Middlesex District, said that “in any normal year, this would be the lowest barrier” to meet.
In this election cycle, however, she said “it’s going to be down the wire.”