Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law last week allowing cities and towns to postpone spring elections scheduled on or before May 30 as the region weathers the coronavirus pandemic.
But some say the change doesn’t go far enough to protect the public — and especially campaigns — from COVID-19, particularly when it comes to a staple process of every election: signature gathering.
“Door-knocking is out,” public health experts John McDonough, Paul Harris, and David Jones penned in a CommonWealth magazine op-ed. “Meet-and-greets are now tele-town halls. Fundraising has shifted to phone and video gatherings. Campaigns that thrive in crowded, team-oriented environments are working from homes trying to re-engineer winning strategies in our new era of social distancing.
“As public health leaders, we know this is necessary,” they added. “Slowing the spread of COVID-19 and limiting the strain on our health care system demands isolating ourselves as much as we can.”
In Massachusetts, candidates running for state representative must submit 150 certified signatures to get on the ballot. State Senate candidates must file 300. Nomination papers for these offices are due April 28.
Meanwhile, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives candidates must file 10,000 and 2,000 signatures, respectively. Signatures required in local elections vary.
The law signed by Baker last Monday allows municipalities to push elections back through a vote by the chief governing board, such as a city council or select board. Rescheduled elections must be held by June 30.
Communities have already begun to the postpone local races and town meetings. In Southwick, where officials said an urgent special town meeting vote was needed sooner rather than later, voters reportedly gathered outdoors in a school parking lot, standing apart from one another to cast their votes last week.
As far as process, however, the law details caveats in how to handle absentee ballots and other election materials, but does not offer guidance, remedy, or recourse for how candidates could or should collect signatures in the new age of social distancing.
Congressional candidates, including Reps. Joe Kennedy III, Ayanna Pressley, and Seth Moulton, wrote to state leaders in a March 16 letter, urging them to push back the deadline to submit nomination papers by at least 30 days.
“We have suspended in-person events for the immediate future and are moving our outreach online whenever possible to be sure we are doing our part to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities and to prevent an undue strain on our health system,” they wrote. “We hope you will take immediate action to protect the residents, volunteers, and local election officials throughout our state.”
According to McDonough, Harris, and Jones, a spokesperson for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin’s office said campaigns should swap out pens and use new sheets of paper when collecting signatures.
“This still requires campaigns to make physical contact with voters when they are supposed to be social distancing,” they wrote. “And it requires local town clerks to risk their health in order to receive and process papers.”
Massachusetts state House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka said they are considering alternatives to the requirements, according to MassLive. Reducing the number of needed signatures is one possibility.
“There are ways of making sure you get your 150 signatures,” DeLeo said. “In addition to that I think we are talking about, not so much maybe extending the deadline, but maybe we have to consider not only the state level, but the federal level as well, the U.S. Senate candidates in terms of the number of signatures, so I think those are things that are, that we are talking about.”