Top Massachusetts Court Green-Lights E-Signatures for Election Canvassing

This 2018 file photo shows a political canvasser knocking the door of a person identified as low-turnout voter, a month out from California’s primary June 5 election. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

BOSTON (CN) — In an era when one’s own grocery deliveries spark anxiety, political candidates canvassing voters to get on the ballot can make do with electronic signatures, the highest court in Massachusetts ruled Friday.

The change comes after a bipartisan trio of prospective candidates complained in court that social-distancing rules to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus has made the state’s signature requirements to get on the Sept. 1 primary ballot unconstitutional as applied.

Lifting the bar in a rare afternoon ruling Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed that, solely for the current election cycle, candidates need only collect 50% of signatures usually required to get on the ballot, and the signatures can be electronic. The candidates for state district and county offices had been required to meet an April 28 deadline for submitting their nomination papers. That deadline is now May 5, and they have until June 2 to file the certified papers with the state.

“I think that this was really a victory for democracy today, and a victory that showed the importance of public health,” said Robert Goldstein, one of the three candidates who filed the suit. “Dropping the number of signatures and making sure it applies to all races, I think that was an enormous victory.”

Secretary of State William Galvin originally offered to reduce signature requirements by 50%. He was less willing, however, to allow unrestricted electronic signatures, citing the potential for fraud.

But these hold little concern for John Cluverius, associate director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“Anytime you create a system where the burden to engage in a fair and reasonable practice is more difficult than simply executing fraud, people are going to find ways around the system,” he said in an intervirew. “I think the criticism of online signatures, particularly now, I think are a really more of a fear of technology than they are grounded in an expectation that more fraud will occur.”

What does concern the professor is how the candidates will gather the electronic signatures. The ruling says candidates must first upload scans of their nomination papers. Voters can then print out the pages, sign them and rescan them for submission. Voters can also record their signatures with a mouse or stylus.

“The mechanism seems fairly burdensome for an individual to engage in,” Cluverius said. “It would almost be easier if you let people fill out an application online that verified their driver’s license number or other ID.”

During typical elections, candidates must gather signatures on official forms that are supplied by the state. Those forms became available on Feb. 11, but Governor Charlie Baker had declared a state of emergency, calling on people to self-quarantine and respect social distancing, by March 7.

Before candidates can appear on primary ballots, they must typically obtain a minimum number of signatures from registered voters in their respective districts. U.S. Senate candidates need 10,000, U.S. House candidates need 2,000. State senate candidates need 300, while state house representatives need 150. Those numbers will be halved, as per the SJC’s ruling.

Because statewide and federal offices already face a later deadline, the court held that the candidates for these offices are not similarly situated and thus not entitled to relief.

Robert Goldstein is attempting to challenge incumbent Stephen Lynch, a moderate Democrat who has served in the U.S. Congress since 2001.

Goldstein said that he had already submitted about 1,000 signatures, which should qualify him under the new threshold the SJC approved today.

Kevin O’Connor hopes to make it onto the Republican ballot for U.S. Senate, so that he can then challenge Democratic Ed Markey, or Markey’s primary challenger Joe Kennedy III in November. Republican Shiva Ayyadurai is also running after he failed to secure the party’s nomination in 2018.

Melissa Bower Smith is running as a Democrat against fellow party member James Murphy for the 4th Norfolk state representative seat, which has been held by Murphy since 2003.

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