The virus’s toll on democracy

Signature-gathering perilous in face of pandemic

WHILE PRESSING LIFE-AND-DEATH ISSUES of course must remain the paramount focus of efforts in the face of the coronavirus (notwithstanding the president’s pivot to talk of getting commerce flowing by Easter), the pandemic’s effect on important aspects of normal societal functioning can’t be ignored.

Count democracy as one of its potential victims.

While people are hunkering down at home and observing social distancing, the calendar says this high season for candidates and their supporters to be gathering nominating signatures to appear on the ballot this fall in races for everything from state rep to US senator. Those two facts are colliding, and state leaders don’t seem to know what to do about it.

While Beacon Hill honchos agreed earlier this week to push the dates back for several special elections slated for the coming weeks, they have not taken action on urgent calls to modify election laws covering signature requirements for appearing on the ballot.

As a Globe editorial today describes, the inaction may chase a US Senate candidate out of the race. Kevin O’Connor, a lawyer who had launched a bid for the Republican nomination for the seat held by Ed Markey, says he’s stopped signature gathering efforts because of the obvious coronavirus risk of thrusting a clipboard in front of thousands of voters. (US Senate candidates face the steepest requirement of any office-seekers in the state — 10,000 signatures.)

The virus is no theoretical risk to O’Connor’s family: His 86-year-old father has been hospitalized after testing positive for coronavirus, and his mother had been helping with signature gathering. “It is entirely possible that the virus was introduced into my family through the petition-gathering process, and it is possible that volunteers for campaigns across the state are unwittingly spreading the infection throughout the public,” O’Connor told the Globe.

The editorial urges state leaders to follow the lead of New York, which has reduced signature thresholds to 30 percent of the normal number.

Three Massachusetts public health leaders — John McDonough, Paul Hattis, and David Jones — penned an op-ed earlier this week in CommonWealth urging a delay in the state’s signature deadline (currently April 28 for state offices; May 5 for congressional seats) or to “radically cut the number of signatures required to earn a spot on the ballot in this unprecedented time.”

Even adopting the New York standard, however, would only reduce the odds of signature gathering leading to transmission of the virus.

Their piece appeared in CommonWealth along with a second op-ed arguing that we need to abandon the idea of physical signature gathering altogether and move to a system of electronic signatures.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Brian Fitzgibbons, cofounder of a Cohasset-based digital advertising firm, says such a system is already in widespread use — in everything from mortgage applications to online voter registration, a system overseen by Secretary of State William Galvin, the same official in charge of certifying that candidates have met the signature threshold to appear on the ballot.

Fitzgibbons says digital signatures, which include a signer’s IP address and could require date of birth and a driver’s license number for verification purposes, come with a lot more safeguards against fraud than “an illegible scrawl on a piece of paper.”

Lots of other questions are raised by the idea of allowing electronic signatures, including the digital divide that may leave some registered voters without easy access to the technology needed to “sign” a nominating petition. But there are all sorts of ways that the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to think outside the box, and this may be an idea worth considering.