BOSTON (SHNS) – Door-to-door canvassing has been replaced with phone calls and tweeting. Local elections officials are weighing new ways to expand absentee ballot access for worried voters. Candidates are experimenting with virtual town halls and blending public health information into their messages.
This is campaigning in the coronavirus era, and for the next two weeks, those running in March 31 special elections must adjust their approach accordingly: Secretary of State William Galvin said Tuesday he does not yet believe postponing those elections is necessary.
In an interview with the News Service, Galvin stressed that his office will respond as the situation unfolds and may alter course in the days or weeks to come. But for now, he believes Massachusetts can safely operate polls.
“If it’s a true crisis, we’re certainly not going to force people to choose between their health and voting, but we don’t think we’re there right now,” Galvin said. “It’s not that we’re unwilling to (change the election). It’s that we’re reluctant to do it unless we have a real good reason.”
Galvin’s office last week requested emergency authority to postpone an election or move a polling place, but the secretary said Tuesday that proposal only had in mind the hundreds of springtime municipal elections, not the four special legislative elections.
When municipal races are delayed, he argued, the existing government is essentially extended, but pushing back special elections would leave two House districts and two Senate districts without representation for longer.
All four districts lack representation because their former officeholders sought new jobs mid-term.
Galvin cited his work in 1997 to suspend local elections following a major snowstorm and said he would respond in a similar way this spring if necessary.
However, he pointed to the high turnout in the March 3 presidential primary — which was also the primary election in the four specials and the general election for another special House race — as evidence that ballots can be submitted safely with proper precautions, such as extra staffing to cover any illness-caused absences and encouraging voters to bring their own pens.
“We had 1.5 million people vote in person on March 3 and not a single person has attributed being infected with coronavirus to voting on March 3 at this point,” Galvin said. “Voting is certainly less likely to be risky than going to the grocery store to buy toilet tissue, so at this point, we feel we can conduct these elections safely.”
In the interim, major party candidates for all four special elections — Susan Moran and Jay McMahon in the Plymouth and Barnstable Senate district; Rep. John Velis and John Cain in the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire Senate district; Dan Sena and Catherine Clark in the 37th Middlesex House district; and Carol Doherty and Kelly Dooner in the 3rd Bristol House district — told the News Service their campaign strategies have changed drastically over the past week.
All eight candidates said they have suspended door-to-door canvassing and most other in-person events to prevent spread of COVID-19, following guidance to keep six feet away from other people and limit the size of groups.
Instead, they are focusing their efforts on phone-banking, Facebook and Twitter, and “virtual town halls,” hoping to make a digital rather than physical connection with voters.
“There’s so many other ways we can reach out to the community that won’t put people at risk, so we’re turning to mail, phone and social media to communicate our message,” Doherty said.
The candidates all said remote campaigning has drawbacks despite its public-health necessity, describing it as more challenging to make a lasting impression on voters remotely.
“We become so dependent on technology, yet face-to-face with voters and their ability to ask questions one-on-one is really paramount to taking care of their needs,” Clark said. “It is a different world that we’re relying on technology to help us.”
They have also incorporated coronavirus response into topics on the campaign trail, something they likely did not expect when they first launched their bids.
“We have to remember that with a lot of people out of work, our poll workers will make sure they do everything they can get to make sure every precaution is make. If we spread it out as a community and work together we can make this election happen,” said John Cain, Republican Candidate for the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire District.
“If you want to participate in this but you just don’t feel comfortable going into the polling location in these 11 cities and towns, get an absentee ballot. Take care of yourself. Get out there if you want too otherwise get an absentee ballot because our democracy needs to go on,” said Representative John Velis.
McMahon said Cape Cod has been hit hard by declining demand for restaurants and other hospitality services. In response, he said if elected he would push for a “meal tax holiday” of at least 30 days and repeal of the state’s ban on happy hours to help drive new demand.
“They’re going to have to make up some serious money from these shutdowns,” McMahon said. “We are going to have to have a huge infusion of cash in the local economy, and the way to do that is relieving some of the pressure points done by taxation.”
Some noted that, because nomination papers are already available for the regularly scheduled September state primaries, any delay to the March 31 special election could force them to effectively run for both a short-term special election and a two-year term at the same time.
Velis, a Westfield Democrat, is the only candidate in one of the special election fields who currently holds a seat in the Legislature. He said his balance between campaign work and legislative work has shifted toward the latter.
“The past week, there’s been any number of meetings at Westfield Town Hall that I’ve been participating in, there’s been any number of bills we’re diving into,” he said.
Some municipal officials are weighing additional ways to blunt risks at polling places on election day.
Rep. Josh Cutler said his hometown of Pembroke, which is part of the Plymouth and Barnstable Senate district, developed a preliminary plan that would allow residents to request absentee ballots via email and drop them off into an outdoor slot monitored by a poll worker. The town will also attempt to limit exposure inside polling places, he said.
“By doing those steps, we’ll be able to minimize in a significant way any kind of exposure issues and still allow folks to exercise their democratic right to vote,” Cutler said.
Galvin said a city or town clerk could create an extension of their office where individuals could file absentee ballots, but that generally those votes have to be mailed in or dropped off in the office itself.
He said older voters or those with underlying health problems can request absentee ballots if they worry about transmission risks, but declined to “get into every hypothetical case” when asked if those ballots would be made available to a 25-year-old with no health issues.
The secretary also criticized Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr for objecting to a plan that would have scheduled the final Senate elections alongside the March 3 presidential primary, when one House race was decided and the four special elections all held primaries.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if my schedule for the final elections had been followed in the first place,” Galvin said.
Other campaigns outside the four special elections are feeling strain from the virus as well. Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Ed Markey in a primary race, last week suspended all campaign activities unrelated to COVID-19 and prompted organizers of a March 18 debate to postpone the event.
More than a dozen congressional candidates wrote to Galvin, Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Tuesday requesting a 30-day extension to the May 5 deadline to submit nomination papers.
The winner of the lone March 3 special general election, Melrose City Councilor Kate Lipper-Garabedian, had been set to be sworn in on Wednesday. However, she said Tuesday that the plan has been thrown into uncertainty.
“These are incredible times,” she wrote in an email. “As I understand it, the Governor and Speaker were prepared for tomorrow but the Governor’s Council needs to be available as well. So we have to wait until at least next Wednesday (the Council meets on Wednesday) as the Council has to certify the swearing in.”