R.I. progressive group calls for suspending signature requirement for ballot listing

PROVIDENCE — From the ranks of left-leaning candidates for Rhode Island legislative seats has come a plea for the suspension of signature requirements on nominating papers.

The plea was made Friday by the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, an alliance of Democratic candidates.

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The group was co-founded by Jennifer Rourke, wo is challenging Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey; and includes Lenny Cioe, who is challenging Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. It includes a single incumbent: Rep. Moira Jayne Walsh of Providence, who is frequently at odds with the House leadership.

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the critical need for all Rhode Islanders to practice social distancing, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative calls on the General Assembly to suspend the ballot signature requirements for the 2020 elections,” the group wrote.

“There is simply no reasonable way to collect ballot signatures while complying with social distancing requirements.”

To qualify for the ballot, candidates for president on down are required to collect the signatures of anywhere from 50 to 1,000 eligible Rhode Island voters.

Candidates running for U.S. Senate need 1,000 signatures; for the U.S. House of Representatives, 500 signatures; for the state Senate, 100 signatures, and for the state House of Representatives, 50 signatures.

Think: hand-to-hand exchange of pens, paper and clipboards. Will anybody stop and sign a nominating petition in summer 2020? Will candidates take the risk?

The state Board of Elections wrestled with these questions at a recent meeting and decided to give the General Assembly — which has been on hiatus since mid-March — a few weeks to act. If no action is taken, the board indicated it may step in before the end-of-June candidate declaration period.

“The clock is ticking,″ Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU, warned the board that day.

Even in late June, he anticipated “there will continue to be … significant risks [from] one-on-one contact which is what the laws currently require in order to get those signatures.”

From legislative leadership came this statement on May 15:

“The House and Senate leadership believes General Assembly action to reduce the number of signatures required at the federal level, given the COVID-19 circumstances, is a good idea.”

The leadership made no mention of changing the signature requirements for legislative candidates. When asked again Friday if that was a possibility, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said the question had been asked and answered earlier.

“The requirement for legislative candidates is not burdensome,” Pare said. “There are any number of creative ways to get the needed signatures in a safe manner, such as asking people stop by at an outdoor signing and to bring their own pens to sign.

“But if you want to carry Matt Brown’s water, so be it,’’ Pare said of the former secretary of state and 2018 Democratic primary candidate for governor who helped found the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.

The group wrote: “We do not want to see any candidates or voters put their health or lives at risk.

“While we believe that, ordinarily, the ballot signature requirement is important for demonstrating a candidate’s commitment to run a serious campaign, this unprecedented crisis demands that we prioritize the health and safety of Rhode Islanders.“

The group noted that Vermont has suspended its own signature requirements with that state’s elections director, Will Senning, calling the move “a common-sense measure” that is “necessary in this time when we are sheltering at home, avoiding gatherings, and avoiding unnecessary contact with other people.”

kgregg@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7078

On Twitter: @kathyprojo

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