Update: On March 14, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that modified the election petition process. The order reduces the number of signatures required to 30% of the normal statutory threshold. The number of verifiable signatures varies depending on the office. The order also ends the petition process on March 18. The process was scheduled to end by April 3.
Silvano Orsi, who is running for the 137th Assembly seat, wrote a letter to the govenor several days earlier, requesting that the petition process be stopped because of the potential spread of COVID-19. Ann Lewis, also running in the 137th, and Hilda Rosario Escher, a candidate for the 56th Senate District, also signed the letter.
Orsi responded to the governor’s order: “We’re grateful to Gov. Cuomo and New York State for sharing our concern about the safety of voters, volunteers, candidates and the community, and we’re thankful for thse important preventive measures, which will help avoid the spread of the virus. We look forward to working with New York State and the Elections Board to implement alternative options for the future, such as a potential online petitioning and signature collection option.”
Concerns about the coronavirus have led two rivals in the 137th Assembly District to ask the governor, the state and local boards of elections, and the Monroe County Department of Public Health to suspend the practice of collecting signatures in order to get on the ballot.
Silvano Orsi of Gates and Ann Lewis of Rochester co-signed a letter, along with New York Senate candidate Hilda Rosario Escher, saying that going door to door or walking up to people and handing them pens and clipboards could spread the virus.
Orsi said the petition process involves “hand to hand contact,” which has to be reconsidered when around the area and the country, public events are being cancelled and sports events are being played in empty arenas.
“It’s out of an abundance of concern and caution not only for our safety, but for the community’s safety, the residents and dozens of volunteers out there,” said Orsi, who approached Lewis and Escher about drafting the letter. “The chance of spreading something going door to door, then going to the next house all the way down the street, you can infect an entire street, an entire town, in the matter of a day with something like this.”
As of March 11, there has not been a confirmed cased of COVID-19 in a Monroe County resident.
Since Feb. 25, candidates have been passing petitions in order to amass the requisite number of signatures – which varies by office – that lets a candidate enter the election. Petitions have to be turned in between March 30 and April 3.
The letter requests that a fair signature threshold be set and the petition process end by March 20 or other appropriate date. Orsi, Lewis and Escher suggest that as a one-time exemption, any candidates with 100 verifiable signatures by the deadline be allowed to participate in the primary and general election.
Orsi called the petition process an “archaic system that protects entrenched politicians and their seats. We’re in the 21st century. There should be an online option for when something like this happens, that guarantees our constitutional right to run for office.”
Lewis said that candidates have had ample time to get at least 100 verifiable signatures.
“Our interest is to make sure the public is safe,” she said. “In all reality, if you want to run, you should have the right to run because what they do is you get an amount of signatures, then other candidates will go through them and try to knock you off the ballot, which is crazy. Let the people knock you off the ballot. Let the people not vote for you.”
Lewis and Orsi went to the post office together to send the certified letter to state officials. “Sal and I are committed to the community,” she said. “We’ve had discussions about campaigning. By no means are we enemies. Our best interest is the interest of our district and New York state at large.”
Orsi said he also sent emails to the governor, the election boards and to Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the county health department.
Candidates across New York are going up to people and asking them to sign petitions. A spokesman for the state board of elections said it has received complaints about petitioning. But the board lacks authority to suspend the process, which is set by law.
The spokesman said only the legislature or the governor, who has been given emergency powers, can make changes. He said he is aware that the topic is being discussed.
He said the state board of elections has sent guidance to county boards around hand hygiene and other safety precautions.
Escher, who is running for the 56th District in the state Senate, said she was a meeting in Brighton, and several people voiced concern about the virus. She said she was listening to an interview with the governor and someone asked the question, but he replied that they had not talked about suspending the petition process.
She said Orsi asked her if she would add her name to the letter.
Escher said she still is collecting signatures for her petitions. “I love going out and talking to people.”
This story was updated March 15 to reflect Gov. Cuomo’s executive order.