Ballot question campaigns are next to face signature hurdle

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s highest court this month slashed signature-gathering thresholds by half for candidates hoping to earn spots in September and November elections, but proponents of this year’s statewide ballot questions remain in limbo with key deadlines approaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the Massachusetts Legislature does not act in the next week, campaigns pressing for new state laws will each need to collect more than 13,000 signatures in the next two months — during at least part of which social-distancing recommendations will still be in effect — to ensure initiative petitions make the ballot.

Operatives behind the four active ballot question campaigns told the News Service in recent days that they are exploring every option possible to gain relief, including legal action, from a signature rquirement that poses significant challenges during a public health crisis.

“We’ll move forward anyway,” said Cara Brown McCormick, senior advisor for the Voter Choice for Massachusetts campaign proposing a ranked-choice voting system. “But yes, it’s incredibly difficult to get signatures when you can’t ask someone for their signature and hand someone a pen to sign.”

The campaigns — ranked-choice voting, increasing nursing home funding, updating a 2013 law on access to automobile data, and allowing food stores to sell beer and wine — have been at work since last year and are approaching the final steps in the process to put ballot questions before voters.

A legal remedy is one option.

During arguments about a lawsuit brought by legislative candidates seeking lower requirements, Justice Scott Kafker suggested the court may have to weigh in on another case if it did not broadly allow electronic signatures to replace traditional pen-on-paper signatures.

“That seems like we have another crisis coming down the road then, is that right? Unless we free the electronic signature process,” Kafker said.

The court’s decision, however, only granted e-signature permission to and halved the number of signatures required for the candidate plaintiffs in the case. The largest remaining threshold is for U.S. Senate hopefuls, who must only collect 5,000 signatures — slightly more than a third of what ballot questions campaigns need — with a one-week deadline extension.

Several initiative petition campaigns hinted they are prepared to launch lawsuits similar to the one brought by the candidates. The ranked-choice voting campaign filed an amicus brief in the initial case outlining the obstacles it faces and the benefits it would gain from access to electronic signatures.

“They will pursue whatever means they need to in order to preserve the right of the petitioners to have that question put before the public in November, and that includes continuing to talk to the secretary, continuing to talk to other committees who are facing a similar challenge, and appealing to the court to find a solution which we think is there in terms of the e-signatures,” Ernie Corrigan, spokesman for the nursing home ballot question campaign, told the News Service.

Corrigan said the public health crisis, which has been acute in long-term care facilities that account for more than half of the statewide deaths, puts the proposal to increase nursing home funding in the spotlight.

Pre-pandemic, he said, facilities in Massachusetts collectively faced a $350 million shortfall in Medicaid funding, a gap the question aims to close.

“We would argue, and I think most people would agree, that whatever the situation in nursing homes was last year when this campaign began is far more urgent today than it was a year ago,” Corrigan said.

Some campaigns are hopeful that Secretary of State William Galvin will extend a lifeline that nullifies the need for legal action.

Ballot campaigns praised a suggestion Galvin made to the SJC about limited use of electronic signatures, which is similar to what the court ordered, and said a similar system should apply to their efforts as well.

“On behalf of our coalition representing more than 1,500 independent repair shops and 30,000 employees in the repair and parts sector in the state, Massachusetts Right to Repair is asking the Secretary of State to pave the way for digital signatures so that voters can have their voices heard in a safe way,” Tommy Hickey, director of the Right to Repair Committee, said in a statement. “The court has rightly allowed for digital signatures to count for candidates, (and) now the 86 percent of voters who supported Right to Repair in 2012 are looking for fair treatment so that they are able to vote to update the law in 2020.”

Galvin’s office declined to say if the secretary has such plans. Debra O’Malley, a spokesperson, said Galvin “likely won’t be making any statements on this issue at least until after the deadline for the Legislature to act on the petitions.”

“That being said, there isn’t much that this office can say on the matter right now,” O’Malley wrote in an email to the News Service. “Unlike with the nomination paper issue, most of the ballot question petition requirements are constitutional, not statutory. The legislature wouldn’t be able to change the deadlines or the number of signatures required, since both are in the Constitution. That is why the (SJC) justices mentioned during the hearing that this issue is likely to come before them again soon.”

13,347 Signatures by July 1

Each of the four campaigns in December submitted more than the 80,239 certified signatures required for that step, placing their proposals before the Legislature.

Under sections of the state constitution outlining initiative petitions, the House and Senate have until May 5 to act on the suggested law changes. If they do not, supporters must collect another 13,347 signatures by July 1 to guarantee that their question will be on the ballot if a legislative solution is not reached before then.

Lawmakers hosted committee hearings on the ballot questions, but the branches appear unlikely to take up any of the proposed bills by the fast-approaching deadline, particularly given that the House and Senate are both operating in the COVID-19 era of informal sessions where one member’s opposition could stall any topic.

“Given the current public health crisis, it’s unlikely the Senate will act before May 5,” Antonio Caban, a spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka, said in a statement to the News Service.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s Office declined to comment.

McCormick said the campaign remains “hopeful” for action from the Legislature, noting there are dozens of co-sponsors who back a ranked-choice voting system and arguing that the proposal meshes with vote-by-mail “like peanut butter and jelly.” However, she said none of the campaigns can rest with certainty.

“We basically have to do both-and,” she said. “In these times, you have to take every option available to you to try to fix a broken system.”

A representative for the beer and wine sales campaign did not respond to a News Service inquiry.

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