State’s Highest Court Sides With GOP on Signature Requirements in Massachusetts Races

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For political candidates in Massachusetts this year, getting on the ballot presents more of a problem than usual, because during the coronavirus emergency candidates and their surrogates can’t approach people in public places to ask for signatures the way they usually would.

Although the coronavirus pandemic makes it impossible for candidates to campaign as they normally would, Massachusetts Senate Democrats this week rejected an amendment proposed by Republican state Senator Ryan Fattman of Webster that would have cut the signature requirement for candidates for the state legislature.

On Friday, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court indirectly sided with Fattman. The state’s highest court cut in half the number of signatures of registered voters needed to qualify for the ballot for all elected offices and extended the deadline for submitting signatures.

“We emphasize that the declaration we make and the equitable relief we provide is limited to the primary election in these extraordinary circumstances, which is the sole subject of the case before us, and does not affect the minimum signature requirements for the general election this year or for the primary elections in any other year,” Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by three candidates for public office in Massachusetts: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Kevin O’Connor, Democratic U.S. House candidate Robbie Goldstein (Eighth Congressional District, which is mostly south of Boston), and Melissa Bower Smith, a Democrat running for state representative in the Fourth Norfolk District (which is mostly in Weymouth).

O’Connor is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by U.S. Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat. Goldstein is running in the Democratic primary against U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston. Smith is running for a state representative seat currently held by James Murphy of Weymouth.

The court decision came just one day after Democrats in the Massachusetts Senate decided to exclude state legislature candidates from eased ballot access requirements.

The Democrats’ bill (S.2632) would have cut the signature requirement in half for candidates running for United States Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Governor’s Council, and county offices – but not for candidates for the Massachusetts Senate and House.

If it had been enacted, the Democrats’ bill would have required U.S. Senate candidates to get 5,000 signatures instead of 10,000. U.S. representative candidates would have needed 1,000 signatures instead of 2,000. And governor’s councilor and county office positions would have needed 500 signatures instead of 1,000.

(In the island counties of Nantucket and Dukes, however, the county offices would have required just 25 signatures.)

Fattman wanted to reduce the signature requirements from 150 signatures to 75 signatures for state representative candidates and from 300 to 150 for state Senate candidates to match the other cuts. However, Fattman’s proposed amendment to the bill failed 4-5 in a vote along party lines. All four Senate Republicans voted for the amendment:  Fattman, Bruce Tarr (Gloucester), Dean Tran (Fitchburg), and Patrick O’Connor (Weymouth).

With the court ruling Friday, Massachusetts Republicans got what they wanted.

In the lead-up to the court ruling, the Massachusetts Republican Party blasted the Democrats’ committee vote, arguing that the bill they proposed favored entrenched Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

 “This is exactly the kind of game the Democrats intended to play, as soon as they heard Sen. Ed Markey was 3,000 signatures short,” Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons said in a written statement. “The Democrats panicked and wanted to change the rules to help their guy, and were in quite a hurry to do so — but too bad if you’re trying to qualify to run against one of them.

“When it came to the issue of fairness and spreading it across the board, Democrats stood united against it, and this is the type of one-party rule that has to stop,” he added.

During the state Senate session in which Democrats voted down the proposal on Thursday, April 16, Fattman told his colleagues the amendment would be beneficial to the democratic process — giving constituents choices at the ballot box.

“Our policy today is that we don’t believe in picking winners and losers, we believe in fairness and equal protection for all,” Fattman said, “and if we’re going to change the signature requirement law, isn’t the most fair way to do it — to do it for everybody?”

Summer Schmaling, a Republican candidate for state representative in the Plymouth 12th district, would have been one of the candidates affected. Schmaling is running in a district where incumbent Democrat Kathleen LaNatra of Kingston got 52.5 percent of the vote in 2018. 

Before the court’s ruling on Friday, Schmaling told New Boston that she does not think that it is fair that the state Senate would give someone like Ed Markey a break, but not her.

“Instead of protecting the health and welfare of the public, the State Legislature and House & Senate Leadership opted to put the best interests of themselves, as usual, ahead of public safety,” Schmaling said in an email message. “Using a global public health pandemic, to effectively deliver incumbency protection is unconscionable.”

“The Massachusetts Legislature is invoking ‘blind liability’ putting candidates in a precarious health predicament by forcing them to gather nomination signatures when ‘social-distancing’ and ‘stay-at-home’ orders by Governor Baker are officially in place to protect society’s most vulnerable,” she added.

Earlier in the week, Democratic state Senator Joanne Lovely of Salem explained to State House News Service why she did not support lowering the signature requirement for state legislature candidates.

“I think if we lowered the amount it would be an incumbent protection bill,” Lovely said. “Three hundred signatures is not a lot. I didn’t have them two weeks ago. I put out a quick mailing to 125 people and was able to meet it in a week. It’s not a high bar to meet in my opinion.”

The Massachusetts Democratic Party could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case is called Robert Goldstein and others vs. Secretary of the Commonwealth. It is dated Friday, April 17, 2020.