Baker open to reducing signature threshold for fall election

With some campaigns turning to the courts for help as Beacon Hill drags its feet in weighing whether to relax ballot access rules, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday he would be open to reducing signature requirements to qualify for the ballot, particularly for county and federal office-seekers.

His support puts Baker on the same side of the issue as Senate President Karen Spilka, who told the News Service earlier this week she personally supports reducing the signature requirements, but is still seeking "consensus." It's unclear which forces on Beacon Hill may be holding up a plan, or have issues with the change.

The governor made public his support for lowering the signature threshold as a bipartisan group of candidates turned to the Supreme Judicial Court for help, seeking emergency relief from the signature gathering requirements at a time when the federal government and Baker have recommended strict social distancing to fight the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory disease that has so far killed 503 people in Massachusetts.

"The Baker-Polito Administration is open to reducing the signature threshold, and is aware of the difficulty the pandemic has created for ballot access, particularly for county and federal candidates who are required to collect over one thousand signatures," spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement to the News Service.

"The administration is confident that changing these requirements require statutory action and is open to working with Legislature," Guyton said.

Secretary of State William Galvin, who is the state's chief elections officer, has previously downplayed the need to postpone the deadlines or reduce the signature requirements, but has been clear that only the Legislature can make a change.

"Refuses to Act"

The heads of both the state Democratic and Republican parties have endorsed legislation filed by Rep. Patrick Kearney of Scituate to cut the signature requirements by two thirds, and MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons said Thursday that he had worked with Galvin to get permission for candidates to print nomination papers on 8.5-inch by 11-inch paper at home, as long as the forms are double sided.

"It's a simple move that helps those candidates without insider connections and the financial advantages that come with being a longtime incumbent like a Speaker (Robert) DeLeo," Lyons said. "I'm grateful that Secretary Galvin agreed to work with us on this."

"At the same time however I'm confused as to why Democratic leadership still refuses to act," Lyons added.

More than two weeks ago, after the Legislature passed a bill allowing local elections to be postponed, DeLeo said he was talking with other legislators about the signature totals required to run for different offices, though not the date.

A spokesperson for DeLeo did not return a message seeking comment on the speaker's position Thursday afternoon.

Legislative candidates have until April 28 to turn in their signatures to local clerks for certification. Candidates for state representative must collect 150 signatures from registered voters in their district to qualify for the ballot, while candidates for state Senate must collect 300.

Though federal candidates have until May 5, the thresholds are considerably higher, with candidates for the U.S. House required to collected 2,000 signatures and U.S. Senate candidates needing 10,000.

The Boston Globe reported earlier this week that U.S. Sen. Edward Markey was shy of his signature totals by about 3,000, while U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy had already met his mark.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin O'Connor has been among the most vocal in advocating for Beacon Hill to ease the requirements for ballot access during the coronavirus pandemic.

O'Connor was among the group of candidates, along with Dr. Robbie Goldstein, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch in the Eighth Congressional District and Hingham state representative candidate Melissa Bower Smith, to file an emergency petition with the Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday seeking relief.

O'Connor fears that signature gathering may actually be the reason his 86-year-old father contracted the virus last month after his mother, who lives in the same house, was helping her son collect the required signatures.

"It is entirely possible that the virus was introduced into my family through the petition-gathering process, and it is possible that volunteers for campaigns across the state could unwittingly spread the infection if the legislature does not take action," O'Connor said in a statement. "Our campaign ceased all in-person gathering of signatures almost a month ago. The time is long overdue for the Commonwealth to act responsibly and align the signature requirements for this year with public health needs."

And Goldstein said relaxing the requirement was necessary to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

"This is a direct threat to our democracy and to public health. Elections are the foundation of our democracy and we must ensure residents still have a voice in determining who our leaders are. I'm hopeful the court will take swift action to address this matter," he said.

The candidates are being represented pro bono by the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray.

"Satisfying this requirement is now practically impossible for many candidates, given the unprecedented restrictions enacted to combat the spread of COVID-19," said Robert Jones, a partner at the law firm. "Absent action from the Court, many candidates who would otherwise be on the ballot this fall will be excluded for failure to submit sufficient certified signatures. Many voters, too, will be denied the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate."

Other options for candidates other than asking volunteers to stand outside of places like grocery stores to collect signatures include mailing signature forms to voters with pre-paid return envelops, or having a downloadable form on their website.

Spilka, who has yet to collect the 300 signatures she herself needs to qualify, said she leaves a stack of forms on her porch for people to come sign, and has asked some of her supporters to do the same.

The SJC is expected to hear oral arguments in the case by telephone next Thursday at 2 p.m., according to one of the campaigns, and the court has asked lawyers for the plaintiffs to prepare a brief for next week on what an electronic signature process might look like.