The virus’s toll on democracy

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.

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.

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker criticizes the inaction of the Senate but leaves President Trump alone. (CommonWealth)

Baker also introduced a bill to push off MCAS testing, let restaurants serve alcohol with take-out, and let municipalities change their tax deadlines. (State House News Service) The governor also ordered a temporary ban on utility shutoffs. (Eagle-Tribune)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh temporarily suspended the city’s plastic bag ban at grocery stores. (Boston Herald)

Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill is asking residents to voluntarily limit their grocery shopping to particular days of the week, depending which ward they live in. (The Salem News)

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera is asking for the National Guard to patrol the city in case of civil unrest. (Eagle-Tribune)

A website in Worcester is connecting job-seekers with jobs that are considered essential to combat coronavirus. (Telegram & Gazette)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Senate leaders and the White House reached agreement on a $2 trillion emergency aid package in response to coronavirus. (Washington Post)

President Trump’s call to speed the reopening of the country’s economy could cause the nation’s entire health care system and economy to crash under the weight of a surge of critically ill people, economists and public health experts say. (Boston Globe)

An astounding 60 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the US are in the New York City area, where the infection rate is 8 to 10 times that of the rest of the country. (New York Times)

LIFE WITH CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus is a looming threat across the state’s shelters for the homeless. (Boston Globe)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

While Boston and Cambridge have shut down construction work, Gov. Charlie Baker says he wants to see construction continue elsewhere, particularly housing development. (Boston Globe)

Fishermen are asking for federal assistance. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Massachusetts marijuana dispensaries are now making hand sanitizer. (MassLive)

State Lottery and Keno sales are plummeting. (Boston Herald)

EDUCATION

Attorney General Maura Healey and state lawmakers are monitoring how colleges and universities are handling refunding room and board fees. (State House News Service)

Harvard President Larry Bacow and his wife test positive for COVID-19. (CommonWealth)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Good news: The state hit its target for daily COVID-19 tests and, with expanded testing taking place, needs to maintain that pace. (CommonWealth) The Broad Institute says it will start doing testing, handling about 1,000 tests a day. (WBUR)

The race is on by Massachusetts hospitals to get additional life-sustaining ventilators. (Boston Globe)

Worcester is developing plans to use the DCU Center for overflow hospital beds. (MassLive) Southcoast Health has begun diagnosing local patients with coronavirus, after a new drive-through test site opened. (Herald News)

A Williamstown nursing home says a resident has tested positive for COVID-19. (Berkshire Eagle)

Alexa Kimball says thank you for the protective equipment donations pouring in. (CommonWealth)

ARTS/CULTURE

A survey by the Massachusetts Cultural Council indicates the coronavirus has cost the nonprofit arts sector nearly $56 million and individual artists $2.8 million. (CommonWealth)

TRANSPORTATION

The Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority launches fare optional bus rides. (Taunton Gazette)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

COVID-19 cases at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater are up to 10 — eight prisoners, one staffer, and one medical official. (CommonWealth)

More details from the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, where an employee tested positive for COVID-19. (The Enterprise)

Three Worcester County courthouses are closed after a judge tests positive for COVID-19. (MassLive)

MEDIA

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News, all owned by Newspapers of New England, are laying off staff, reducing hours, and cutting pay due to coronavirus. (MassLive)

In a fundraising letter, the New Orleans Advocate and Times-Picayune say 10 percent of the 400-person staff has been furloughed and the rest cut to four-day work weeks. (Nola.com)