By Bob Katzen
On Friday, April 17, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that the number of required signatures for all elected offices in the September 1 primary be reduced by 50 percent because of the difficulty and health risks of collecting signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means that the number of signatures needed for U.S. Senate candidates is reduced from 10,000 to 5,000; Congressional candidates from 2,000 to 1,000; Governor’s Council and some county offices from 1,000 to 500; candidates for the State Senate from 300 to 150; and candidates for State Representative from 150 to 75.
The ruling also extends the deadline for candidates for state and county offices to submit signatures to local election officials from April 28 until May 5.
The third part of the ruling allows for some use of electronic signatures in the signature process. According to the decision, “Candidates seeking to be on the ballot for the September 1 primary election will be allowed to scan and post or otherwise distribute their nomination papers online. Voters may then download the image of the nomination papers and either apply an electronic signature with a computer mouse or stylus or print out a hard copy and sign it by hand. The signed nomination paper can then be returned to the candidate, or a person working on the candidate’s behalf, either in electronic form or in paper form.”
“Because it is not altogether clear how long the COVID-19 virus may survive on various surfaces and objects, people are reluctant to touch any pen or piece of paper that has been touched by another, at least unless they quickly can wash or sanitize their hands,” read the court’s decision. “Accordingly, if a candidate seeks to obtain signatures on nomination papers in the traditional ways, he or she reasonably may fear that doing so might risk the health and safety not only of the person requesting the signature but also of the persons who are signing, of the families with whom they live and potentially of their entire community.”
“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,” continued the decision.
The suit was brought by U.S. Senate Republican candidate Kevin O’Connor; U.S. House Democratic candidate Robbie Goldstein running in the Eighth Congressional District, and Democrat Melissa Bower Smith, running for a House seat in the Massachusetts Legislature.
“Today’s decision marks a victory for the people of Massachusetts, and is a rebuke to the Legislature, which for weeks has failed to act to address this dangerous public policy conflict,” said O’Connor. “The ruling serves the interests of public health and democracy. Of equal importance, it reinforces the fundamental principle that no one — not even entrenched political incumbents — are above our federal and state constitutions.”