MINOT, N.D. — "I'm wondering if people will not be able to collect signatures to get on the ballot due to social distancing, and what cascading effects may result from that?," a reader asked me last night.
It's a good question. One that's larger than just ballot measures. Candidates for public office must also turn in petitions to put their names on the ballot.
Consider these upcoming deadlines:
- April 6 - Candidates hoping to be on the June primary ballot must have their signatures filed
- May 19 - Write-in candidates for congressional offices, judicial districts or statewide offices must have signatures filed
- July 6 - Initiated measure committees hoping to make the general election ballot must turn in signatures
- August 31 - Independent candidates hoping to be on the general election ballot must turn in their signatures
The April 6 deadline is a particularly acute problem for Republican candidates because their state party opted not to hold a convention.
Usually, the candidate who wins at the convention gets a certificate of endorsement from their political party, which qualifies them for the June ballot without needing to gather signatures. This year, in the absence of a convention, none of the candidates are getting that certificate, which means signatures are their path to the ballot.
Statewide candidates need at least 300 signatures, and even that relatively small number is no easy task.
"It's making it a lot tougher. I'm having to rely on a lot more people to help," state Rep. Tom Beadle, R-Fargo, told me.
He's running for the NDGOP's nomination for treasurer against fellow Republican lawmaker Dan Johnston. "Rather than have one person go out there and get the signatures we're having a couple of dozen people. Even if they're able to get five or 10 people, it helps," he said.
Beadle says he's got the signatures he needs, but it was difficult. "It's a slower and more arduous task than normal," he said. "Normally I could just stand in downtown Fargo, and I'd have it over the lunch hour. Now when I've gone out there, there's three people over the course of an hour."
The ballot measure committees may be facing a particularly difficult journey to the ballot. It's common practice now for the deep-pocketed special interests behind those measures to hire professionals to collect their signatures (the days when these campaigns were truly volunteer efforts is past us, I think), but even paid petitioners are going to have problems if nobody is out and about.
This cycle statutory measures have to collect nearly 15,000 signatures. Constitutional measures must receive approximately 27,000.
Per Secretary of State Al Jaeger, there's no getting around those requirements. "There are no plans to change any signature requirements and timelines for candidates," he told me.
"The signature requirements and timelines for measures are set in the state's constitution. Nothing can be changed there," Jaeger added.
He did note that candidates collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot have a small advantage in that they can file their petitions electronically. Measure committees have to turn in their original petitions.
Either way, the more significant problem is finding people to sign petitions when fear of COVID-19, and directives from the government, are keeping people indoors.
There are no measures on the upcoming June ballot. The Legislature has placed two constitutional amendments on the November ballot, and four more are being circulated:
- A petition to block the Legislature from changing the initiated measure process (organizers say they've given this one up)
- A petition to legalize recreational marijuana in the state constitution
- A petition to legalize recreational marijuana in state statute
- A petition to abolish property taxes which was just approved by Jaeger's office for circulation today
In addition to these, a petition to make numerous changes to the state's election and redistricting laws has been submitted to Jaeger's office for approval but hasn't been released for circulation yet.
Each of these measures will require thousands, if not tens of thousands, of signatures, and coronavirus is going to effectively shorten the timeline for how long organizers have to gather.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.