Signature relief seems distant goal on Beacon Hill

Boston Statehouse

Rep. Marjorie Decker tweeted a photo Saturday of a table set up to receive nomination signatures for herself and U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark. (Photo: Twitter/MarjorieDecker)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Even before one Republican senator put a hold on legislation that would slash in half the number of signatures federal and county candidates need to gather to qualify for the ballot this year, House officials on Monday were downplaying the need for the bill, making it increasingly likely that the Supreme Judicial Court will decide the ballot access and public health issue.

Candidates running for various offices have raised concerns in recent weeks about their ability to responsibly gather the required number of voter signatures to run for office during the coronavirus crisis.

With social distancing the best tool to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, candidates are reluctant to ask volunteers to approach strangers for their signatures, or ask potential supporters to put themselves at risk by interacting with campaign workers.

Three candidates have filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Judicial Court seeking relief, and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who needs 10,000 voter signatures to get his name on the ballot, is among those still reaching for the threshold.

“I think there were perfect conditions to gather all the signatures early and if you didn’t take advantage of the caucuses or the good weather on Super Tuesday with a high turnout, what were you waiting for?” said one House chairman, who spoke only on the condition that they remain anonymous.

Another House source familiar with the thinking of many members said a signature reduction bill would almost certainly not clear the House at this point in time, and that Speaker Robert DeLeo was reluctant to consider changing requirements for some candidates, but not others.

The Senate bill would not apply to candidates for state House and Senate seats, and it’s unclear if DeLeo supports changing the status quo at all. His office declined to comment on the topic, but one source said the speaker was caught off guard last week when Gov. Charlie Baker publicly backed the idea of lowering the requirements for federal and county offices.

Election Laws Committee Co-Chair Rep. John Lawn did not return an email seeking comment.

Senate President Karen Spilka and Rules Committee Chairwoman Joan Lovely released a bill last Friday night to cut in half the signature requirements for candidates for federal office, county office and Governor’s Council.

Senate Democrats had hoped to pass the bill (S 2632) on Monday, but Sutton Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman blocked it, pushing consideration off until at least Thursday, the next the time the Senate meets.

“There needs to be more communication,” said Fattman, one of four Senate Republicans, who had the power as an individual lawmaker to block the bill’s progress because the Senate continues to meet without a quorum.

The GOP caucus “didn’t have much interaction with this proposal — whereas with every other issue we have, which is great,” he said.

While Fattman would not be impacted by the changes in the bill, his wife Stephanie Fattman is the Worcester County register of probate who is seeking re-election in 2020 and would see her requirement, and that for potential challengers, cut to 500 signatures.

Lovely disputed Fattman’s account, telling the News Service that her office had been talking with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr’s office, and she spoke to Tarr personally Friday night.

“We’ve been talking about this for probably three weeks, and it’s been in the newspapers, so it’s not a surprise or out of left field,” Lovely said. She also defended the decision to exclude state legislative candidates from the bill, which has been criticized by some as a move to shield incumbents from challengers.

“I think if we lowered the amount it would be an incumbent protection bill,” Lovely said. “Three hundred signatures is not a lot. I didn’t have them two weeks ago. I put out a quick mailing to 125 people and was able to meet it in a week. It’s not a high bar to meet in my opinion.”

The bill is the “result of countless conversations over several weeks,” Spilka said in a statement Monday.

“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,” she said. “It is important to strike a balance between promoting access to the ballot and ensuring candidates demonstrate sufficient community support for their candidacies. I believe this bill strikes that balance.”

Candidates for U.S. Senate must collect 10,000 signatures, while candidates for the U.S. House need 2,000 and county offices require 1,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Lovely said Senate leaders were targeting those races with higher requirements.

However, the Salem Democrat said she didn’t know the bill’s future now, with the Supreme Judicial Court expected to hear oral arguments on Thursday in a lawsuit brought by a bipartisan group of three candidates seeking relief from the signature requirements. The plaintiffs include a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, a Democrat running for Congress and a candidate for state representative.

“They may make a decision. It’s in their hands now,” she said. Briefs in the case are due to the SJC by Tuesday.

Fattman said he would prefer to see bills fast-tracked on priorities like unemployment and first responders, while taking time to reach consensus on “periphery things” like the elections bill.

“We need to figure out what’s most fair, and there’s a lot of opinions on that on both sides of the aisle,” the Sutton Republican said. “And so this is something that’s still alive. It’s just we need to get to the bottom. There was miscommunication even in where they should be procedurally today. So we’re going to clear all that up.”

Options still available to candidates needing to collect more signatures include mailing forms to voters and paying for return postage, or having them print forms at home and send them back to the campaign. Some candidates, including Spilka, have even set up tables at the house with clean pens for passersby to sign.

Markey’s campaign has said it’s confident it will qualify for the ballot with or without legal relief from the signature requirement. But the House chairman opposed to lowering the threshold, and who endorsed Markey over U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III in the primary, said that wasn’t a factor in his thinking.

“If he doesn’t that’s on him,” the Democrat said.

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