NEW HAVEN, CT — The federal court is being asked to decide whether the burden of collecting 30% fewer signatures for a challenger to get on a primary ballot in the middle of a pandemic is too high or just right.
Gov. Ned Lamont used his executive authority to change the number of signatures a challenger needs to get on the ballot. He also extended the deadline for submission of those signatures by two days and allowed individuals to mail or email a signed petition form.
Attorney Alex Taubes, who is petitioning to get on the ballot himself and representing other clients challenging the petitioning process, argued that the changes Lamont made aren’t enough relief to get on the ballot in the middle of a pandemic.
In an affidavit that’s part of the lawsuit Taubes filed against the state, Renee Brown, who is circulating petitions to enable Taubes to challenge Senate President Martin Looney, said she usually gets paid per signature and collects 60 to 80 on a seven-hour shift.
But in a recent attempt to collect signatures, she said she walked all of James Street in New Haven, in addition to Lombard Street and much of Grand Avenue, and only came back with 18 signatures.
“The voters who were willing to speak to me were highly receptive to signing Alex’s petition. But so many people were unwilling to talk because of COVID,” Brown said in court documents.
Taubes, of New Haven, also is representing Jason Bartlett, who only received 5 delegates at the May 20 convention. Sen. Gary Winfield walked away with 47 votes and the party’s nomination.
Bartlett needs 1,028 valid signatures to qualify for the Aug. 11 Democratic primary ballot. That doesn’t include the additional ones he would need to collect because some signatures are invalid or a person doesn’t live in the district.
In a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court held via Zoom, Judge Janet Hall asked why “this scheme virtually excludes these candidates, each one of them or any of them I suppose, from getting on the ballot by petition? It doesn’t sound like a lot of signatures to me.”
Taubes said, “The reason is coronavirus.”
“We’re here on a Zoom meeting today because of a deadly virus that’s swept our state,” Taubes said. “The candidates are being asked to make a very difficult choice between the health of our community and the health of our democracy.”
Hall said even if Bartlett only had 4 people circulating a petition for him, they would only need to get 16 signatures a day over a 16-day period. She said if he had 8 circulators they would have to collect only 8 per day.
“I believe that your math is correct,” Taubes said.
However, Taubes said they have had far less success this year than in a normal year.
“People are quitting out of frustration,” Taubes said.
Hall pointed out that the governor’s changes mean a voter can sign a form and mail it in or they can print it, scan it, and email it to town hall and no one has to witness the signature.
“Why isn’t this combination of ways to get signatures sufficient?” Hall asked.
Taubes said that on paper, the governor’s executive order looks generous, but in practice it’s much harder.
He said Bartlett created a web portal where 300 people tried to sign, but only 100 came through the system and he doesn’t know how many of those will be valid.
Hall pointed out that this process of collecting signatures didn’t start until May 26, which should have given Bartlett and the other candidates plenty of time to think about how to use their resources.
Hall also said the state started reopening on May 20.
Taubes said the number of people who would be willing to sign a petition is being curtailed “by fear.”
Hall suggested candidates drop off petitions at apartment buildings, but Taubes said people don’t go out of their way to sign paperwork and put it in the mail. Also, those buildings are now closed to the general public.
Hall seemed to be wrestling with whether she should intervene.
“The problem I have as a federal judge, which is, it’s not my job to run the state of Connecticut,” Hall said. “It’s certainly not the judiciary’s job to run elections. I believe the constitution gives that to somebody else.”
Hall said she doesn’t know that candidates have the “right to be on the ballot.”
She asked Taubes to prove that they do, and then she assumed that he met that threshold and moved on to the argument about whether it was “severely burdened.”
Taubes argued that it is nearly impossible to collect signatures during a pandemic and attempts to use electronic methods through the company DocuSign were not allowed by the state.
Hall said she’s read the affidavits from the various circulators and the response rates each has gotten in response to their petitions.
“The governor gave us a lot of other ways to do it, but they’re not terribly effective,” Hall said. “There is evidence that using traditional methods in COVID environment yields significantly fewer,” signatures, Hall said.
She said on one hand, she compliments the governor on easing the witness restrictions and including options, but “I think that the plaintiff is not wrong when he says we have to look at those” to determine whether they are effective means to be able to collect signatures in the pandemic environment.
The state is arguing that the COVID-19 public health crisis does not compel the court to step in to impose a primary ballot access requirement that is more lenient than that approved by the state’s political parties.
“Any assertion that the accommodations provided by the state in the Executive Order are insufficient is speculative at this point,” attorneys for the state argued in their brief.
The Connecticut Democratic Party also intervened in the matter supporting the accommodations that are already in place.
Hall said she planned to make a decision by next week.