Facing a court challenge and under pressure from candidates who have raised public health concerns, Senate Democrats announced Friday night that a bill lowering signature collection requirements for some candidates during the COVID-19 crisis will be taken up on Monday.
Senate President Karen Spilka announced that the Senate Rules Committee has released a bill (S 2632) that would cut in half the required signatures for candidates for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Governor's Council and most county offices. The bill leaves in place the signature thresholds for state legislative seats.
"We must prioritize the protection of public health during this pandemic," Sen. Joan Lovely (D-Salem), chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, said in a statement. "This bill appropriately halves the requirements for candidates who need one thousand or more signatures to get on the ballot, thereby protecting both civic-minded citizens and potential officeholders."
With social distancing encouraged to slow the spread of the dangerous virus, candidates have had difficulty collecting voter signatures at public places and some have resorted to the cumbersome process of mailing signature forms to voters with pre-paid return envelopes.
The bill cuts the signature requirements for U.S. Senate candidates from 10,000 to 5,000, for U.S. House candidates from 2,000 to 1,000, and for Governor's Council and most county office candidates from 1,000 to 500. State Senate candidates would still need to collect 300 signatures, and House candidates 150.
If the bill is approved in the Senate on Monday, it's unclear how the legislation will be received in the House. A spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker told the News Service on Thursday that he's open to adjusting signature requirements.
During the pandemic, most senators and representatives have stopped attending legislative sessions, but bills may still advance as long as all of the few lawmakers present in each branch agree to move them forward. With so few lawmakers participating in sessions, public debates on Beacon Hill have ceased.
Legislative candidates have until April 28 to turn in their signatures to local clerks for certification. Federal candidates have until May 5.
The Boston Globe reported this week that U.S. Sen. Edward Markey was 3,000 signatures short of 10,000 while U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, his primary opponent, had already met his mark.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin O'Connor has been urging lawmakers to alter the signature requirements and fears that signature-gathering may be the reason his 86-year-old father contracted COVID-19 last month after his mother, who lives in the same house, helped her son collect signatures. In the current environment, O'Connor says, the collection process has become "a barrier of access, not the hurdle it is intended to be."
O'Connor, U.S. House candidate Robbie Goldstein and Hingham state representative candidate Melissa Bower Smith filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday seeking relief. The SJC is expected to hear oral arguments in the case by telephone on Thursday at 2 p.m., according to one of the campaigns, and the court has asked lawyers for the plaintiffs to prepare a brief for next week on what an electronic signature process might look like.
Spilka, who this week had yet to collect the 300 signatures she needs to qualify for the ballot, said that she leaves a stack of forms on her porch for people to come sign, and has asked some of her supporters to do the same.
"With this legislation, we hope to find a way to ensure that those who decide to run for public office can demonstrate the necessary support they have in their communities without endangering their health or the health of others," Spilka said in a statement late Friday.