Politics

Court eases Massachusetts signature requirements for candidates, amid ‘extraordinary’ coronavirus concerns

"We proved once again that our democracy, if protected and fought for, is unshakeable in the face of existential threats."

On the front lawn of a home in North Andover, a table was set up with nomination papers, held down by bricks and empty pots, asking people to please sign them. Jim Davis / The Boston Globe

As the number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts continues to soar, the state’s top court is stepping in to make it easier for local political candidates to qualify for the Sept. 1 ballot.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered Friday afternoon that the number of signatures that all candidates are required to gather be reduced by 50 percent, and also pushed back the filing deadlines for those running for state legislature or county offices. The decision came after a group of candidates sued the state last week, arguing that the health concerns due to the COVID-19 outbreak made the typically face-to-face task of collecting signatures unconstitutionally burdensome.

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The SJC also ordered Secretary of State Bill Galvin on Friday to allow candidates to file signatures electronically, rather than in their original “wet-ink” form.

“We emphasize that the declaration we make and the equitable relief we provide is limited to the primary election in these extraordinary circumstances, which is the sole subject of the case before us, and does not affect the minimum signature requirements for the general election this year or for the primary elections in any other year,” the court said in a summary of its judgement.

The decision means that the signature requirements will be reduced from 10,000 to 5,000 for U.S. Senate candidates; from 2,000 to 1,000 for U.S. House candidates; from 1,000 to 500 for governor’s council and county office candidates; from 300 to 150 for state Senate candidates; and from 150 to 75 for state House candidates.

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The deadline for state legislative and county candidates to file those signatures with local election clerks will be delayed from April 28 to May 5, which is the current deadline for statewide and federal candidates.

Robbie Goldstein — a Boston doctor challenging Rep. Stephen Lynch in the Democratic primary, who was one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit — called the decision “a win for public health and a win for democracy.”

Amid stalled efforts to address the issue by state lawmakers, first-time candidates — and even some incumbents — had been forced to try to gather signatures remotely, an expensive and relatively laborious task to meet what is typically a formality for legitimate candidates in normal times.

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“Today, we proved once again that our democracy, if protected and fought for, is unshakeable in the face of existential threats, including a global pandemic,” Goldstein said in a statement Friday. “I’m pleased with the outcome. As an infectious disease physician, I could not in good conscience put my campaign above the health and safety of countless volunteers and election clerks.”

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