New York City Pols Try to Make Gathering Signatures to Get on Ballot Safer

To stop the spread of COVID-19, 5 mayoral candidates and the public advocate want to find a new way for candidates to handle campaign petitions

New York City mayoral candidates joined Public Advocate Jumaane Williams calling to remove gathering voter signatures to make it on the ballot. (Screenshot)

Five candidates for New York City mayor all agreed on one issue Friday afternoon: getting rid of the process politicians use to gather enough signatures to make it on the ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic, eliminating face-to-face contact with voters.

In a Zoom call Friday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams hosted a handful of the mayoral candidates calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the way candidates get on the ballot in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus ahead of the June 22 primaries. However, it’s unclear if this authority rests in New York City or the state capitol.

To officially get on the June ballot in New York City currently requires potential candidates to collect hundreds or even thousands of signatures from random voters in March. Williams and the candidates warned interactions between campaign workers and voters while trying to get those signatures could exacerbate the pandemic in the already hard-hit city.

“During this crisis, we can’t willingly allow actions that we know will lead to transmission, that will lead to death of more New Yorkers,” said Williams, who is up for reelection.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at a September 2019 City Council hearing. (Official NYC Council Photo by William Alatriste)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken statewide executive orders to reduce the number of signatures required to make the ballot, and legislators passed a bill that the governor signed into law on Jan. 28 to codify the new limits. The law also adjusted the start of petitioning to begin March 2, with petitions filed between March 22-25.

Because the signatures, even fewer of them, would still require hundreds or even thousands of interactions with voters for local campaigns, Williams said the state’s changes didn’t suffice to take away the possible exposure of the virus to too many voters and workers.

On Jan. 28, Williams wrote to de Blasio proposing that the city use the number of donors a campaign has, instead of the number of signatures on a petition, to get on the ballot. This followed an open letter by a coalition of Democrats also calling on Cuomo, de Blasio and other lawmakers to waive campaign petitioning.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment, as of 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

During Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show Friday morning, de Blasio said he didn’t believe he had oversight to cancel in-person petitioning. However, the mayor suggested alternatives,  such as online petitions.

“I very much would like to see a change here because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but I am not certain that’s something I can do alone,” de Blasio said. “I think that requires state law.”

Among the candidates vying to replace de Blasio, Eric Adams, Carlos Menchaca, Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley all spoke in favor of changes alongside Williams. Shaun Donovan, another mayoral hopeful, issued a statement in support that was read at the press conference. Friday’s announcement came as Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate now running for mayor, tested positive for COVID-19.

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 12. (Credit: New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office)

“This is not about a cost issue because, clearly, we’ve all raised enough money to put a petition process on the streets,” said Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, who currently leads in individual contributions and money raised. “This is about the right process to save the people of the city of New York, and not to aggravate the already existing problem of the failure of our city to respond to COVID in the proper way.”

Morales, a nonprofit executive, pointed to more than 40 people running for mayor and over 300 City Council candidates.

“That’s a super spreader disaster lying in wait,” she said. “We’ve got to be cautious not to do anything to increase the spread.”

Ultimately, Williams told reporters he’d be willing to go to court to enforce petitioning changes amid the pandemic.

“I think many people would gladly stand with the mayor on this hill,” Williams said. “But this is the type of hill that you need to fight on.”

Neal Rosenstein, government reform coordinator at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said petitions to gather signatures to get on ballots have worked to democratize elections, but higher signature thresholds have also historically favored incumbents. The pandemic makes it even harder to get on the ballot, he said, and officials should be looking at alternatives.

“You shouldn’t have to risk your life to support a candidate that you want to see on the ballot,” he said. “It shouldn’t be the democracy we have in the state of New York.”

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