Ropes & Gray is representing three political candidates pro bono in bringing a petition seeking emergency relief citing violations of the Massachusetts and United States Constitutions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The global public health crisis has placed an unprecedented and potentially insurmountable burden on candidates across the state seeking ballot access. Massachusetts law requires candidates for federal office to collect thousands of signatures of registered voters and submit those signatures to local election officials by May 5, and then to the Secretary of State by June 2, to appear on the ballot. For district and local candidates, the deadline is even tighter, with an April 28 deadline to town clerks and May 26 to the Secretary of State. This is, of course, not feasible if candidates are to follow strict social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC and by Governor Baker’s executive orders.
With just under one month to go before most candidates are expected to submit their signatures to local election officials, neither Beacon Hill nor any members of the executive branch of state government have indicated that they will act in a timely manner to grant candidates and voters relief from the current signature collection process.
The Ropes & Gray team believes the SJC will hear the emergency petition based on the urgency and unprecedented nature of this scenario. “Satisfying this requirement is now practically impossible for many candidates, given the unprecedented restrictions enacted to combat the spread of COVID-19,” said litigation & enforcement partner Rob Jones. “Absent action from the Court, many candidates who would otherwise be on the ballot this fall will be excluded for failure to submit sufficient certified signatures. Many voters, too, will be denied the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate.” Led by Rob, the Ropes & Gray team includes litigation & enforcement associate Patrick Roath.
“As a physician trained in how to respond to public health threats and who has spent the past month responding to this crisis, I am confident that relief on signature requirements and adhering to a strict policy of social distancing is not just the right thing to do, but critically necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic,” said Dr. Robbie Goldstein, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the Massachusetts 8th District and an Infectious Disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This is a direct threat to our democracy and to public health. Elections are the foundation of our democracy and we must ensure residents still have a voice in determining who our leaders are. I’m hopeful the court will take swift action to address this matter.”
For some candidates, the conflict between collecting signatures and pandemic safety has hit home directly. Kevin O’Connor, who is running as a Republican for U.S. Senate, had his 86-year-old father hospitalized after testing positive and suffering from severe symptoms of coronavirus. His 82-year-old mother had been actively helping with signature gathering. “It is entirely possible that the virus was introduced into my family through the petition-gathering process, and it is possible that volunteers for campaigns across the state could unwittingly spread the infection if the legislature does not take action,” said O’Connor. “Our campaign ceased all in-person gathering of signatures almost a month ago. The time is long overdue for the Commonwealth to act responsibly and align the signature requirements for this year with public health needs.”
Melissa Bower Smith, another plaintiff in the case and a Democrat running for State Representative on the South Shore, has pre-existing respiratory issues. “Forcing us to ignore social distancing orders and have face-to-face persuasive discussions in public could be a death sentence, not only for me, but many other state and local candidates across the Commonwealth, and for the voters, town clerks, postal workers, and others we interact with in pursuit of the ballot,” said Smith. “We must protect the health and well-being of all, and ensure that equal participation in our democracy is not abrogated in the midst of this public health crisis.”
The petition can be accessed here.
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