City Councilmember and Queens Borough President Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, Dutch Kills) normally loves petitioning. In the “before times,” as he called it, under non pandemic circumstances, it is a great way to meet constituents and find out about their concerns. A candidate stands on a street corner and has conversations with people passing by. They are quick, but meaningful, he said.
But now, with the danger posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Van Bramer is calling for the cancellation of petitioning for this year’s election by joining a lawsuit.
Not only is it not as effective during the pandemic, he said, it’s dangerous.
“The only question is how many will get sick,” Van Bramer said.
More than 100 candidates and volunteers, including many from Queens, filed a lawsuit on Monday asking the Manhattan Supreme Court to cancel the petition requirements to get on this year’s ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Petitioning goes against current public health advisories, the lawsuit said. And despite a recent reduction by 70% in the number of signatures needed and a truncated time period to get them in, it puts candidates, volunteers and voters at risk because of the close contact necessary to gather the signatures.
“I feel really hesitant about sending people out there who will volunteer for me, or be on my campaign, and asking them to risk exposure to COVID to get me on the ballot,” said lawsuit plaintiff Van Bramer. “It’s a choice no one should have to make.”
The plaintiffs on the lawsuit are mostly candidates and volunteers with New York City elections, but it is a statewide effort with candidates from as far as Tompkins County and Washington County upstate. It comes after weeks of outrage at the upcoming petition period during which candidates, lawmakers and campaign organizers and volunteers called the petitioning period a “superspreader event” and wrote an open letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other Democratic party leaders calling for its cancellation.
“All government health directives, State and Federal, advise individuals to stay “six feet apart” from non-household members when in public. Yet the Legislature, and the Governor, in their wisdom want thousands of candidates across the state to stand with clipboards, or have surrogates stand with clipboards, approaching people, or going door to door in apartment buildings, seeking signatures,” the lawsuit reads.
As the pandemic surged last spring, Cuomo signed an executive order reducing the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot and the time period to acquire them in. That order was signed into law last month.
Neither Cuomo’s office nor de Blasio’s responded to requests for comment for this story. But, in a comment made to the New York Daily News, a spokesperson for Cuomo referred back to the recently enacted law.
“The legislature passed a bill to address this issue less than a month ago, which the governor signed,” Cuomo spokesperson Richard Azzopardi said in an email to The News. “They are back in session and we are not going to unilaterally overrule the will of the legislature on a law they just passed while they are in session.”
Before the executive order last year, candidates and their supporters made similar pleas to cancel petitioning during last year’s period because it took place during the onset of the pandemic, said plaintiff Maria Kaufer.
“It’s just unconscionable that none of our state elected leaders have done anything proactively to protect us during the second wave of the pandemic and that we’re back here again,” she said.
Kaufer is considering a run for judicial delegate and would be petitioning for herself and other candidates in Queens if necessary. If the lawsuit isn’t successful, Kaufer said she’ll gather signatures but she’s worried about the spread of the virus. She had COVID in the spring and as a healthcare worker she’s received both doses of the vaccine already, but not everyone is in her situation.
“Most people aren’t in that privileged position,” she said, “It’s a bad paradigm.”
Plaintiff Emilia Decaudin, who is organizing a slate of judicial delegate candidates in Queens and is considering running herself, said the very nature of petitioning goes against the guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said. Volunteers and candidates go door to door, stand close to people to talk about the petition and share pens. But, if necessary, they will do it.
“We’re going to be focusing on engaging with volunteers who are low risk, hopefully maybe folks who’ve already been vaccinated,” she said.
There are other options to in-person petitioning, said Decaudin. New Jersey just implemented electronic signatures, a system that Arizona has used for years. But it’s too late to make the switch for this election, she said. Instead, the candidates should be required to submit a petition cover sheet without any signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“I think that’s the best way to go about it,” she said. “Especially since a lot of candidates and districts are pledging not to challenge each other’s signatures anyways.”
Plaintiff and Queens City Council candidate David Aronov is one of the candidates pledging to not challenge the petitions of their opponents.
Challenges to petitions are a staple in the election process, said Aronov who is running in City Council District 29. Candidates will typically collect upwards of three times the amount of signatures required because they are regularly questioned and invalidated. This is an added danger during a pandemic because it means more in person contact. If everyone pledges to not challenge petitions if the lawsuit is unsuccessful, the extra signatures won’t be necessary, he said.
“We, as a campaign,” he said “Will not challenge any of my opponents’ petitions. I hope that other people in the race do the same.”
Aronov, who co-wrote an op-ed in November calling for the cancellation of petitioning, said that political leaders in the state don’t seem interested in coming up with another way for candidates to get on the ballot but that something needs to be done.
“You’re going to have all these people going out, getting signatures. It’s putting people at risk, and health at that risk so that’s why I signed on,” he said. “We can’t put politics in front of public health.”