As coronavirus upends elections, ballot access becomes next point of concern

Third parties, ballot initiatives hit roadblocks without in-person petitioning.

April 22, 2020, 2:54 PM

As coronavirus continues to upend the election cycle and fights over voter access to the polls weave through the courts, candidate access to ballots has become just as difficult.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Voters First and the Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit seeking to relieve some of the petitioning requirements needed to qualify for a ballot due to coronavirus.

Ballot initiatives, which only make it to the ballot if enough voters sign a petition to qualify it to do so, are often the source of legal changes in a state which do not go through the legislature. Without the ability to collect signatures or canvass in-person, the plaintiffs argue that ballot initiatives won’t make it onto the ballot for voters to decide, putting democracy at risk.

The issue at play is the enactment of a non-partisan redistricting commission which would redraw the state’s districts, instead of the state legislature.

“We have a right to petition our government to amend our constitution. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until next year,” said Bonnie Miller, Director of Arkansas Voters First and President of the League of Women Voters of Washington County. “If we are denied access to the ballot this year, Arkansas could be stuck with unfair and unrepresentative districts for another ten years.”

Groups around the country are pursuing similar lawsuits in hopes to see changes to the requirements to petition, whether it be removing an in-person notary requirement, lessening the number of signatures needed, or allowing for the collection of signatures electronically.

The Green and Libertarian parties also filed multiple lawsuits and petitions to change the ballot qualification requirements, since third-party candidates often have to petition to appear on ballots.

An election worker handles vote-by-mail ballots coming out of a sorting machine for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington, March 10, 2020.
Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Suits were filed against state officials in Illinois and Georgia, where the parties and some candidates argue that ballot options are being stifled amid coronavirus.

"Ballot access restrictions are perhaps the most egregious obstacles facing independent and third-party candidates. Many states already require near-insurmountable signature requirements just to get on the ballot," Brendan Phillips, the co-chairman of the Green Party's ballot access committee, said in a statement.

"Considering the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, these already very difficult requirements now force candidates to endanger themselves, their families and the very people they seek to represent in public office. We are no longer able to collect petition signatures for ballot access. Unless state Governors take executive action to provide relief, our only path to the ballot in 2020 will be through the courts," he said.

In Illinois, the Libertarian and Green parties argue that the Illinois State Board of Elections will not modify signature requirements for "new" parties, as they did for "established" parties-- i.e. Republican and Democrat.

The plaintiffs in that case were granted preliminary injunctions which waive the signature requirement temporarily.

In Georgia, the Green and Libertarian candidates for U.S. House filed suit asking for signature requirements to be adjusted to account for social distancing, citing the public health risk involved in petitioning during a pandemic.

The group also asked for a relaxation of qualification requirements in New Jersey and Vermont. The Green Party wrote a letter to NJ Gov. Phil Murphy asking to petition electronically, as well as in person. Murphy signed an executive order making the change. In Vermont, the legislature passed a bill which would eliminate petition requirements, among other things, after recommendation from the secretary of state's office.

Other fights in Ohio, Arizona and Maine are moving through the courts in an attempt to gain access to the ballot, giving voters the option to take up constitutional amendments in their upcoming elections.

In Ohio, the group, Ohioans for Raising the Wage, filed a lawsuit at the end of March to ease the requirements for ballot access due to the coronavirus for a measure aimed at raising the state's minimum wage to $13.

"The burdens of the state law requirements in conjunction with the COVID-19 virus effectively makes it an impossibility for citizens to obtain the necessary signatures to qualify a statewide issue for the 2020 General Election ballot," the filing reads.

"In order to collect the large number of signatures which are required to qualify for the ballot in Ohio in the limited timeframe allowed by law, petition circulators rely on circulating petitions at events which attract a large number of individuals..." the filing continues.

The group is seeking to allow for signatures to be collected online, extend the deadline from July 1 to Aug. 21, and lower the required number of signatures by nearly half (from 452,958 to 265,774).

A similar push in Arizona to allow for organizers behind ballot measures to gather signatures online was rejected by a federal judge last week, who wrote in an order, "Although the public has a strong interest in enacting laws through the initiative process, and although the Court is loathe to take any action (or inaction) that would expose Arizonans to an increased risk of harm during these challenging times, the signature requirements Plaintiffs seek to displace have been a part of Arizona’s constitutional and electoral landscape for over a century."

"These requirements reflect a considered judgment, which has stood the test of time, about how best to prevent electoral fraud and promote civic engagement," the order continues.

But in Maine, Republicans looking to block ranked choice voting from being used in November's presidential election are forging ahead with their veto initiative despite the threat of COVID-19 - potentially providing other groups with a pathway to succeed in this new normal.

"We are doing drive-through stop and sign events in areas where people can stop and sign while following social distancing guidelines, pens are single-use, hand sanitizer being used, everything is outside, etc." Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage told the Associated Press. "Tactical shift."