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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

As someone who respects the electoral and campaigning processes, I am wondering how candidates (especially for the General Assembly) are going to petition, fundraise, and door knock during this pandemic? It will require a lot of imagination and necessary reforms. And quickly, as we’re months away from the state’s postponed primary and general elections.

Connecticut has some stringent and antiquated campaign laws. Candidates, particularly for the General Assembly, must seek endorsements from local political town committees and state party conventions as well as try to run for primary and general elections. Most importantly if they fail to get 15% support from their respective state party convention to appear on a primary election ballot, candidates often consider petitioning registered voters in their respective district. This requires a lot of coordinating – and legwork. Petitioning should not be taken lightly especially with a pending lawsuit over its constitutionality.

Many candidates in the tri-state area rely on door-knocking to help voters get to know their faces and recognize their names in the voting booth. Yet, some candidates are door-knocking during a pandemic. In New Jersey, for example, a mayor and council candidate wore face masks and knocked on voters’ doors last month.

So in this coronavirus era, how can candidates conduct any of these campaign activities? The problem is petitioning and door knocking is impossible during a pandemic. And relying on in-person fundraisers and public financing signatures also raises challenges for candidates. Yet, our current state laws require all the above.

Connecting with potential voters and registering new voters can make a difference, especially in a state where little media (especially within the giant New York media market) center on state and local races in Connecticut.

Beyond the need for media and voter attention, many Connecticut candidates also rely on public financing. Connecticut’s Citizen’s Election Program (CEP) has been the lifeblood for a number of local party committees and candidates. It requires candidates to receive small donations from a specific number of registered voters to receive matching funds from the State Elections Enforcement Commission. 

But under current conditions, fundraising will be next to impossible. Campaigns relied on in-person, social events to generate the small donations necessary for public financing. As a former local party chair, our committee focused on those events for our committee and candidates seeking public office. Quite frankly, I relished those events and attended many around Connecticut. In-person fundraisers have always been essential networking moments for candidates and voters. In comparison to in-person events, social media, emails, and phone calls could only do so much for campaigns.

Well, not anymore. Gone are the backslapping and glad-handing exchanges – social accolades I thoroughly enjoy. Now more than ever, party committees and candidates must rely on socially distant campaigning methods. How candidates connect with voters and petition and register them will be key, especially this election year.

But Secretary of the State Denise Merrill reminds candidates that petitioning during a pandemic is “not a smart idea” even though there’s no legal way to collect signatures online. At the same time, our General Assembly has not addressed legislative reform – like electronic voting or video meetings – to tackle issues like campaign reform. Even worse, they only met this week to officially adjourn this legislative session for symbolic reasons. And yet, we have to rely on these very officials to bring about change in an election year during a pandemic?

Hardly. Voters, candidates, and party committees must be the ones to provide innovative campaigning, petitioning, and registering approaches. But they must also lobby lawmakers and officials to modernize and streamline these processes. If local party committee meetings and state party conventions have been and will remain online, then our state lawmakers must recognize the need for modernizing themselves as well as addressing campaign reform.

At the very least, a commission or special committee should consider initiatives to reform our stringent campaign laws. The last thing we need during a pandemic are antiquated laws and overlooked approaches to elect deserving candidates to public office. 

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is former chairman of the New Haven Republican Town Committee and serves on the Republican State Central Committee.

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