Accord clears way for e-signatures on ballot questions

Boston Statehouse

A poll worker wears rubber gloves as she enters a ballot in Chicago. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds Democrats are now much more likely than Republicans to support their state conducting elections exclusively by mail, 47% to 29%. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Ballot question campaigns will be able to collect the 13,000-plus signatures they need over the coming weeks electronically under a new court judgment agreed to by Secretary of State William Galvin.

In a resolution partly mirroring relief already granted to legislative and Congressional candidates, the Supreme Judicial Court issued judgment late Wednesday allowing proponents of four initiative petitions to solicit digital signatures rather than pen-on-paper versions to limit COVID-19 transmission risks.

All four campaigns and Galvin agreed to the resolution by the deadline the court set, averting a full hearing.

The judgment, reached on Wednesday and acquired by the News Service, extends e-signature permission the state’s highest court on April 17 gave candidates for office to the four initiative petitions still in the running to make November’s ballot.

Backers of the proposed laws — authorizing ranked-choice voting, increasing nursing home funding, allowing beer and wine sales at food stores, and increasing access to automobile telematic repair data — will be allowed to post PDF files of signature-gathering forms online for distribution, under the judgment written by Justice Barbara Lenk.

Voters who wish to place the questions on the statewide general election ballot can print the form and sign it by hand, then mail or email it back to the campaigns, or they can apply an electronic signature directly. E-signatures cannot be typed under the court’s order.

Interested parties cannot be required to submit personal information beyond their name, address and municipality to access the digital forms, and any third-party electronic signature providers used cannot retain any personal information of voters.

While the previous Goldstein decision slashed the signature-gathering threshold for many candidates by 50 percent, ballot question campaigns will still need to collect the full 13,347 signatures required and submit them to local election officials by June 17 and to Galvin’s office by July 1.

The campaigns hoping to put proposed laws before voters in November filed an emergency petition with the state’s highest court on Monday seeking assistance. At the time, they said the secretary had been engaged in talks about relief but that the time-sensitive nature of the problem warranted immediate action.

According to the initiative petition process laid out in the state constitution, the proposals are pending in the Legislature until May 5, where the branches can take them up to avoid a ballot question.

If lawmakers do not act, which appears to be the likeliest outcome, campaigns must collect more signatures to place the topics before voters.

Attorneys for the proposals described the situation they face amid the pandemic as a “Catch-22” in their original filing.

“Either (they) risk their health and the health of voters to satisfy unjustifiable and unachievable ballot restrictions and participate in democracy or protect their health and give up their fundamental right to access the ballot,” they wrote.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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