Paul Bass / New Haven Independent

Bruce Oren planned to try to petition his way onto a primary ballot this month — until, thanks to Covid-19, he had neither petitions nor any doors he could safely knock on.

Oren and two other New Haveners seeking to mount primary challenges to Democratic incumbents this year are pressing for clarity — and action — from state officials.

Oren was gearing up for a primary challenge against 15-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. (“I don’t expect to win or even present a formidable challenge. But I think it’s important for democracy for our Congressional representatives to have a primary challenge at least once every 30 years.”) Bartlett is taking on State Sen. Gary Winfield; Taubes, State Sen. Martin Looney. (Click here and here to read about their quests.)

Under state law, they can make the Aug. 11 primary one of two ways: Win at least 15 percent of the votes from delegates at party conventions later this month. Or collect the signatures of 5 percent of the in-district Democrats within just 14 days after the conventions.

The secretary of the state’s office usually has petition forms ready by April 1, though by law it has until the conventions to do so. No petitions are available yet.

Petitions “wouldn’t do me any good anyway. I can’t take them around. Walking up to people isn’t an option at all. You’d have to attach it to a drone and fly it over,” said Oren, who does not own a drone.

“My question is: What are we going to do as a Democratic institution about primaries if you can’t petition?”

“I would not put people in danger by going door to door with petitions. If I don’t make the ballot by convention (I think I have a strong chance) and the state doesn’t create an alternative for ballot access, I may have to sue in federal court,” Taubes, an attorney, wrote in an email message to the Independent.

Bill Bloss — an attorney whose legal challenge (in the 2002 case Campbell v. Bysiewicz)  forced the state to allow party-primary petitioning in the first place — noted that petitioners would be violating Gov. Lamont’s emergency orders, and therefore the law—by knocking on doors and coming within six feet of potential petition-signers.

“Where would you petition now? There are two alternatives —  stand on empty streets and wait for some essential worker to walk by. Or knock on doors,” Bloss said. Unless state officials take action, he argued, Connecticut could on “a smaller scale” repeat the “nonsense that happened in Wisconsin,” where people had to choose between their personal health and participating in an election.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who had warned candidates that this would be a concern in the pandemic, said her office will have petitions ready in time. But she acknowledged the challenges of circulating them — and noted that it’s up to the legislature, or the governor through the use of emergency executive order, to make changes.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s spokesman, David Bednarz, had this response when asked if the administration is considering addressing the issue: “We do not have comment at this time.”

If they do take up the issue, they have a range of options, Bloss said.

Some states allow challengers to pay a fee to have their names placed on party primary ballots. Bloss argued against that idea: “I think you should have to demonstrate some modicum of voter support” to qualify.

Another proposal is to lower the amount of delegate support required this year —from 15 percent to, say, 5 percent.

The state could also give petitioners more time to collect signatures — 28 days, say, rather than 14. Although, Bloss said, he’d still have the concern about whether it’s safe and/or legal to petition at all.

The fairest approach, he suggested, could involve some form of electronic petition-signing.

Jason Bartlett likes the electronic signature idea. He has some ideas of his own, as well.

“Because Gov. Lamont has allowed for electronic signatures on legal documents, I’m thinking that this might be one avenue of collecting petitions,” Bartlett said. “If that ends up being the case I could employ a texting service much like Bernie Sanders used throughout the primary in terms of getting out his supporters. I could text voters and drive them to sign a petition or send an automated response that we could archive and use as proof of support to get on the ballot.

“We also would employ social media, where I am building a base on Facebook and other platforms to drive a petition. In addition, people could email their affirmation and use those emails towards the count.”

Massachussetts has agreed to a variation of that process for challengers looking to petition onto that state’s primary ballots. In a case entitled Goldstein v. Secretary of the Commonwealth, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has ordered that the number of required signatures be reduced and that candidates be allowed to submit electronic signatures.

The court’s decision accepts a suggestion from the state that petitioners “scan and post or otherwise distribute their nomination papers online.  Voters may then download the image of the nomination papers and either apply an electronic signature with a computer mouse or stylus, or print out a hard copy and sign it by hand.  The signed nomination paper can then be returned to the candidate, or a person working on the candidate’s behalf, either in electronic form (by transmitting the “native” electronic document or a scanned paper document) or in paper form (by hand or mail).  The candidates will still have to submit the nomination papers to local election officials in hard copy paper format, but the proposed process will alleviate the need for, and the risk associated with, obtaining ‘wet’ signatures.” (Read the full decision here.)

Looking toward the general election, Connecticut’s Libertarians have filed a federal lawsuit asking the court to order the state to place the names of 20 party candidates on the November ballot without requiring them to petition. Click here to read the complaint, which cites Covid-19 restrictions as the reason for the request. U.S. District Judge Janet Hall has given the state and the Libertarians until Monday to try to reach a solution.