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.
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.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.”