2 takes on how to protect our health and democracy

Gathering nominating signatures in the coronavirus era

Push back deadlines and reduce signature requirements

By John E. McDonough, Paul Hattis, and David K. Jones

The ongoing COVID-19 global epidemic is having an unexpected negative impact on our state’s democracy. Many political campaigns across the Commonwealth and the nation have suspended activities. State leaders need to take immediate action to ensure that the candidates, their campaigns, and voters can interact with each other with the least risk to public health – and that should start by extending the deadline for candidate signature requirements.

Everyone’s caution makes sense because every campaigns’ imperative is to enhance voter-to-voter, hand-to-hand, and grassroots contact, needs that fly in the face of our current public health imperatives.

Door-knocking is out. 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. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 and limiting the strain on our health care system demands isolating ourselves as much as we can.  We have heard from candidates and their teams about these difficult and critical steps they are now taking to do their part to protect public health.

We also know that we need a functioning democracy to support all this work, including an effective pandemic response. One important part of protecting our state’s democracy is to make sure that candidates have a fair and reasonable shot to appear on the ballot without risking anyone’s health or safety.

COVID-19 is happening right in the middle of candidates’ signature gathering season in Massachusetts. To get on the ballot, each candidate must collect a required number of signatures from registered voters. For congressional candidates, it is 2,000 signatures from registered voters in their districts by May 5th. US Senate candidates must collect at least 10,000 signatures. But because of duplicates, illegible handwriting, or other human errors, campaigns need to gather far more than the minimum 2,000 or 10,000.

This process is ripe to transmit a virus. Candidates, staff, and volunteers must stand in crowded areas handing voters a clipboard, pen, and signature sheet that has been passed among many persons. We saw how dangerous this can be when a Rhode Island second-grade student reportedly was infected after merely getting an autograph from a Utah Jazz player affected by COVID-19. Even with protective gloves, handing out new pens, offering squirts of hand sanitizer, and trying to stand as far away as possible, many voters understandably are unwilling to risk their health to sign.

In spite of the looming deadline for signature collection, some candidates have stopped collecting signatures in the midst of the pandemic to protect their volunteers, staff, and public.

Many candidates, buoyed by members of Congress like Representatives Joe Kennedy, Ayanna Pressley, and Seth Moulton, have urged Secretary of State Bill Galvin to grant a 30-day delay to the signature filing deadline.

It’s vital that the Massachusetts Legislature and Gov. Baker grant Secretary Galvin clear authority to amend these rules, and that the secretary take immediate action to do so or else to radically cut the number of signatures required to earn a spot on the ballot in this unprecedented time. Candidates should not have to choose between protecting public health and getting on the ballot. Extending the deadline or lowering the signature threshold would be easy steps to help remedy this conflict.

In response to a letter signed by nearly a dozen Massachusetts congressional candidates, Secretary Galvin’s spokesperson said campaigns should use a fresh sheet of paper and new pen. This still requires campaigns to make physical contact with voters when they are supposed to be social distancing. And it requires local town clerks to risk their health in order to receive and process papers.

We understand that local election officials want to keep plans in place and are reluctant to slow or cancel elections. Still we should not endanger public health to meet an arbitrary signature filing deadline. This is not about ensuring that any one candidate can make the ballot. It is about acting in the best interest of our public health and our democracy.

John McDonough is a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health; Paul Hattis is a professor at the Tufts School of Medicine; David K. Jones is an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

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Electronic signature gathering is the answer

By Brian Fitzgibbons

Coronavirus has altered almost every aspect of life in Massachusetts. Just two weeks ago, Boston was preparing for the Marathon, the streets were teeming with workers and tourists alike, and “social distancing” was something people did to the drunk guy singing on the subway. Since then, we have radically changed how we work and live in order to cope with the pandemic. Politics has been disrupted as well. The State House has all but closed; the Democratic Party cancelled the remaining town caucuses; and campaigns have become completely virtual.

Unfortunately, ballot access requirements are still operating under the pre-coronavirus status quo, threatening both public health and the fairness of our elections. This needs to change. Secretary of State William Galvin and the Legislature should allow for the collection of online signatures for candidates in this election cycle. While this is a radical departure from the status quo, it would ensure fair access to the ballot without jeopardizing the health of voters, candidates, and volunteers.

The traditional ways of getting signatures are either impossible or unsafe due to coronavirus. The last thing Massachusetts needs is candidates going door to door gathering signatures with a clipboard touched by an entire neighborhood of voters. Even if candidates wear gloves and change petition sheets and pens after every new signature, it is all but impossible to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance while canvassing. To understand how dangerous signature gathering could be, think about a candidate for state representative who needs 150 signatures. If one out of every three voters she speaks with agrees to sign, that’s still 450 people who may have been exposed to a deadly virus.

April 28th is fast approaching. This is the last day for candidates for legislative seats and a number of other offices to pull papers and throw their hats in the ring. For smaller campaigns, friends and family can potentially meet the relatively low signature threshold without jeopardizing public health. However, it’s a different story for larger campaigns, such as countywide candidates who need 1,000 signatures or US Senate candidates who need 10,000 signatures. Coronavirus could end their chance of qualifying for the ballot.

In particular, coronavirus could prevent ballot access for first time candidates who don’t have a big political network. These insurgent hopefuls typically meet their signature requirements through sheer persistence, attending countless local events and standing in front of libraries for hours on end. If that approach isn’t viable, challengers will be hard-pressed to meet the ballot access requirements. This is good for incumbents, but bad for democracy.

Some people have suggested extending the deadline for submitting signatures. But picking a new date is a fool’s errand when we do not know how long the pandemic will last. Instead, the state should allow people to sign ballot access petitions digitally. This might seem like a big change, but digital signatures are already used for mortgage applications, corporate registrations, and medical documents. These signatures are actually more secure than a physical signature, because the electronic paper trail verifies the signer’s identity.

In my business, I regularly use digital signatures. When someone signs a document digitally, I know the signer’s IP address, when it was signed, and when it was submitted. If I want to, I can require the signer to verify their identity with a cell phone number or email. These extra steps make digital signatures the equivalent of a notarized physical signature — much more reliable than an illegible scrawl on a piece of paper.

The secretary of state already has a system for online voter registration. Voters use their name, date of birth, and driver’s license number to securely register to vote or change their party identification. This system would be an excellent template for campaign signature collection. A campaign that wanted to cheat would have a much easier time finding someone’s address and forging a signature than getting their nine-digit license number. While no system is completely fraud-proof, it takes a lot more effort to forge a digital signature than a physical one.

America has a long tradition of holding fair elections in times of crisis. The election of 1864 was held during the worst fighting of the Civil War. Union soldiers, even those on the front lines, were able to vote by mail and have their voice heard. On 9/11, Massachusetts held a special election primary to replace Congressman Joe Moakley. Barely a month later, with the nation still fearful of more terrorist attacks, the general election for the seat took place. In 2004, the Bush administration rejected contingency plans for delaying elections after a major terrorist attack.

There is no reason for coronavirus to be any different than these past crises. The Commonwealth just need to make a few adjustments, including authorizing digital signatures, to ensure elections are safe and fair. This small change would make a big difference. It is secure, easy to implement, and will make sure Massachusetts elections proceed fairly despite this crisis.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Paul A. Hattis

Associate professor, Tufts University Medical School
Meet the Author

David K. Jones

Guest Contributor, Boston University School of Public Health
Meet the Author

Brian Fitzgibbons

Guest Contributor, VenueX Media
Brian Fitzgibbons is co-founder and CEO of VenueX Media, a Cohasset-based firm that provides multi-channel, digital hyper-local advertising.