With no parades and no door-to-door campaigning, candidates find it tough to get ballot signatures in the COVID-19 era

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MADISON – The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted a political spring ritual — gathering signatures to get on the ballot.

Bans on large gatherings and orders to stay at home have made it much harder for candidates to secure the hundreds of signatures they need to gather by June 1.

“It should be seen as a nonpartisan issue. It’s a constitutional rights issue and a health issue,” said Roger Polack, a Democrat from Racine running for Congress.

The state Supreme Court’s decision this week lifting the statewide stay-at-home order may make the task for some candidates easier, but similar local orders remain in effect in some places. And even in areas where there are no government rules limiting personal interactions, many people are still practicing social distancing and avoiding large crowds.

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Ordinarily, candidates seek out parades, county fairs and street festivals so they can find supporters to sign their nomination petitions. But those events aren’t happening during the worldwide pandemic.

Candidates and their backers also typically knock on doors to get signatures, but that’s not an option this year as people look askance at strangers on their doorsteps.

Campaigns are coming up with new ideas.

“When you’re not able to go to community gatherings or door to door to get signatures, you have to get creative,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party.

Candidates from both parties are mailing petitions to supporters and asking them to have eligible voters in their households sign them and mail them back. They’re urging voters to download petitions from their websites, sign them and mail them to the candidates.

And they’re holding drive-up signing events, where petitions for multiple candidates from the same party are handed to people in their cars.

To get on the ballot, candidates need 200 signatures for state Assembly, 400 for state Senate and 1,000 for Congress. They can turn in up to double the number of required signatures and candidates try to get as many as possible in case some signatures are later determined to be invalid.

Candidates were allowed to start gathering signatures on April 15 and have to turn them in by June 1.

In this unusual situation, incumbents have an advantage in getting signatures because they already have a network of supporters, Jefferson and Polack said.

Polack hopes to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil of Janesville. Steil campaign manager Alex Walker said Steil plans to turn in 2,000 signatures.

“We focused our efforts on mail, email and social media, and have received outstanding support,” Walker said by email. “Local party organizations also organized efforts to collect signatures and were highly successful. We already have more than enough signatures to get Bryan on the ballot and will be turning in the maximum amount of signatures allowed.”

Also seeking the seat is Josh Pade, who came in last place in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor. He’s using similar tactics as Polack and Steil to get signatures.

“It’s a different world to do it,” Pade said. “I mean, getting signatures in Wisconsin is a very in-person thing (normally).”

Polack said the state’s policies during the outbreak violate the constitutional guarantees of free speech, free assembly, due process and equal protection under the law. 

He said he wished lawmakers or the state Elections Commission would make accommodations for candidates, such as by extending deadlines or lowering the number of signatures needed. Legislative leaders have shown no interest in making changes and elections commissioners say they don’t have the authority to do anything like that.

“It feels like a broader trend of elected officials not doing enough to make it safe for people to vote,” Polack said. “This is really symptomatic of a larger problem.”

The issue of ballot signatures has been raised in a federal lawsuit filed by the owner of an Appleton hair salon. That case centers primarily on the state’s stay-at-home order and it’s unclear if it will advance now that the state Supreme Court has struck it down in a separate case.

Legal challenges over ballot signatures have surfaced in other states. A federal appeals court this month determined Michigan had to loosen its signature requirements because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Maistelman, an election attorney who represents Democrats, said Wisconsin officials here should have addressed an issue that greatly disadvantages challengers.  

“This inherent disadvantage could have been addressed by the Legislature when they were in session right before the signature period started, but they recognized the advantage for incumbents and did nothing about it,” he said by text message.

“This is an issue that is ripe for a court challenge.”

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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