Ballot access gets tricky in the age of coronavirus

Collecting signatures to qualify for ballots has become a daunting task.

April 10, 2020, 1:42 PM

As the novel coronavirus disrupts the ability to campaign, and upends even the way Americans vote, the outbreak is also turning one of the more rudimentary aspects of the democratic process into a herculean task: qualifying for a ballot.

In a marquee race this cycle, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is facing one of the toughest primaries in the country this cycle, after Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., launched a bid to challenge him in September of last year.

But with the threat of a pandemic shuttering nearly every aspect of American life, Markey is now tangling with two rivals and Kennedy appears to be the less threatening opponent of the two, at least for now.

Markey has roughly 7,000 signatures, his campaign confirmed earlier this week, about 3,000 short of the 10,000 needed to get on the ballot with less than a month until the deadline, somewhat of a surprise for a longtime incumbent who has served in Congress for more than four decades.

Without the ability to ask for signatures through traditional campaigning, such as door knocking or in-person voter outreach, due to coronavirus-related social distancing mandates, Markey is facing a tougher road to achieve the required signatures.

He isn't the only one.

For a number of down-ballot candidates who are forced off the campaign trail and lack the name recognition of those at the national level, running for smaller offices amid the coronavirus pandemic presents an unprecedented set of challenges far more acute than the ones facing candidates at the top of the ticket. Lower-profile races, which rely on in-person grassroots outreach like door-knocking and direct voter contact to build their base of support, are competing without the cash, experience or resources of larger campaigns that can potentially make up the deficit.

PHOTO: Sen. Ed Markey holds a press conference in the lobby of the JFK Building in Boston, March 15, 2020.
Sen. Ed Markey holds a press conference in the lobby of the JFK Building in Boston, March 15, 2020.
Boston Globe via Getty Images, FILE

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The deadline to submit the necessary paperwork to access the Massachusetts ballot is May 5 for the Sept. 1 primary - but the Markey campaign doesn't appear concerned about the signature deficit, which was first reported by the Boston Globe.

Markey's campaign manager, John Walsh, brushed off concerns that they won't reach the 10,000 signature threshold in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday.

"It requires some additional work, and it's different than the way we would normally do it and honestly it's a little more expensive because of all the postage," Walsh said, noting that they are now relying heavily on the postal service to collect signatures. "But that's in place and we have not achieved it yet so we still need some help but I'm confident that we will."

By comparison, the Kennedy campaign already collected and delivered over 15,000 signatures, which are being processed, according to a campaign spokesperson.

The Markey campaign would normally be "going to post offices and local dumps and we would be going to local town meetings," Walsh said, but all of that is "off the table" as they adjust to campaigning amid the pandemic.

Walsh outlined some of the tactics the Markey campaign is employing in the new era of campaigning amid the pandemic, including phone banking, social media, and other virtual means of gathering signatures.

"Because we can no longer organize in the traditional face-to-face venues, our campaign is utilizing all the virtual tools available such as phone calls, Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and email to collect signatures, with delivery of the physical pieces of paper by good old fashioned mail through the USPS -- all of which is strengthening our campaign’s connection to the voters," he said.

The campaign is not actively considering other alternatives right now if they don't appear to be closing in on the threshold closer the deadline, Walsh said.

"We have a month left and we're working very hard. As we go, we'll get a sense of how that's working," he said.

"Signatures is just the next step. You see what's playing out in Wisconsin...terrible travesty. And how our elections, how our campaigns are going to work is a real open question right now," he said. "It's, again, not as important as emergency room, but it is an important thing that we're working hard on every day to make sure our democracy stays vibrant."

Further down ballot, a less high-profile House candidate in Michigan, seeking to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens in the 11th Congressional District, is pursuing legal recourse as he struggles to gain access to the ballot amid the crisis.

PHOTO: Voters wait in a line to vote in the presidential primary election while wearing masks and practicing social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, April 7, 2020.
Michael Singleton and his wife Gladys wait in a line to vote in the presidential primary election while wearing masks and practicing social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, April 7, 2020.
USA Today Network via Reuters, FILE

Prior to the outbreak, Eric Esshaki, a Republican and an attorney from Birmingham, said he was on his way to collecting the necessary 1,000 signatures to appear on the primary ballot.

But now Esshaki is suing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, along with state election officials, over imposing a stay-at-home order, which he argues makes it "impossible" for him to gain access to the ballot.

In Michigan, the filing deadline is currently set for April 21, which he says elections officials have indicated will be "strictly enforced" and requires candidates to submit at least 1,000 signatures and up to 2,000 signatures on a petition to qualify for the ballot.

But since the coronavirus' spread, and Whitmer's subsequent stay-at-home order, which was issued on March 23 and was in place until April 13, to respond to the unprecedented threat, Esshaki asserts he is not able to fulfill the signature requirement. Whitmer extended the order on Thursday through April 30.

"[The] defendants' refusal to extend the deadlines places candidates in the position of either having to break the law and cause electors to break the law under the threat of criminal prosecution, or forgo running for public office altogether," he wrote in the complaint filed in federal court last week.

Esshaki is seeking to contest the signature requirement, arguing it violates his rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution, before the April 21 deadline and ahead of the August 4 primary.

Two other GOP candidates competing the race, Whittney Williams and Frank Acosta, who Esshaki would face in the Republican primary if he succeeds in getting on the ballot, have already submitted the required signatures, according to MLive.

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