Campaign petitioning changes amid concerns about coronavirus

(Photos provided)

Political candidates in the North Country are currently petitioning to get on the ballot while global, national, state and local leaders are urging people to avoid contact to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The COVID-19 virus is affecting how those campaigns gather signatures.

Congressional candidate Tedra Cobb, D-Canton, is asking petition carriers deemed at high risk of contracting the disease to stop carrying petitions, and Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, is asking her staff and volunteers to remain vigilant. Petitioning events in Essex County have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

New York adopted new election laws last year, moving the deadline for petitions from July to April (9), as state and local primary elections also shifted from September to June.

Essex County Democratic Committee Chair Margaret Bartley said this change, combined with COVID-19, have made it harder this election cycle for candidates to gather the required numbers of signatures to get on the ballot.

“(Petitioners) have told me that when they go to doors, people don’t want to answer the door, they don’t want to invite the petioners, they don’t want to use their pens,” Bartley said. “People are being very cautious, as they should. … Most voters and most people gathering signatures are retirees; they’re older folks.”

Bartley said this process is slightly more difficult for Republicans than Democrats because they have more registered voters in North Country counties.

Bartley said in response to the election changes, Essex County held 5 petition-signing events in the first week of petition season to attract crowds and gather the numbers of signatures needed. She said each event brought a turnout of 20 to 50 people, which she said was good for Essex County.

The rest of these events are cancelled, though, to keep the spread of coronavirus down.

However, she said this could mean someone might not reach the number required.

“What happens when candidates can’t get enough signatures and they can’t make it on the ballot?” Bartley asked. “What are we going to do?”

Last year, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, co-sponsored by state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and passed with a vote from Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury reduced the number of required petition signatures by one-quarter, from 5% to 3% of registered voters in a candidate’s respective party.

That was only a one-year fix, though, and the requirement is back to 5% again.

Jones said Thursday that there has been “some discussion” about bringing this temporary reduction back this year in the past couple of days, but that there is currently nothing definitive decided.

Jones said coronavirus has been the focus of the Executive branch of state government recently, and that the Legislature is trying to stay focused on the budget and other legislative issues.

“It certainly has dominated the conversation in Albany,” Jones said. “But in the Assembly and our caucus we still go about doing work. We’re working on the budget.”

John Conklin, the Director of Public Information for the state Board of Elections, said he has received complaints from several candidates about the petition number and deadline requirements. The BoE does not have the power to change those statues, he said, only the state Legislature or Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with the emergency powers he was granted last week, can change that. He said he is not sure if they will.

Cobb and Stefanik

Cobb said she is making decisions out of an “abundance of caution.” She said her campaign will not be hosting public events until further notice, and that her Canton office will be closed and staff will be working remotely.

“We are asking that any petition carrier who is deemed at high risk of contracting Coronavirus immediately stop carrying petitions,” Cobb wrote in a statement. “This includes individuals over the age of 60 and anyone with chronic medical conditions.”

House office buildings in Washington D.C. were shut down Thursday and Stefanik’s campaign said her staff are following the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“Congresswoman Stefanik has ensured all staff and volunteers remain vigilant and engage in best practices recommended by public health officials,” campaign spokeswoman Madison Anderson wrote in an email. “The health and safety of her constituents, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, remains Congresswoman Stefanik’s top priority.”