COVID-19 could keep some off election ballot

Elections

Evan Rossio set up a table at his East Grand Rapids home to gather petition signatures for judge hopeful Jenny Johnsen Sarber. (April 3, 2020)

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — At the end of his driveway, Evan Rossio set up a folding table with hand sanitizer, pens-to-go and petitions.

With COVID-19 keeping political candidates from going door-to-door or glad-handing at events to get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, some are getting creative, like Rossio, who gathered names for Kent County Circuit Court judge hopeful Jenny Johnsen Sarber.

The Aug. 4 primary races range from the U.S. Senate to judgeships. Johnsen Sarber, a family law attorney, fears COVID-19 will keep her from the ballot. The deadline for signatures is 4 p.m. April 21. She needs 2,000.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I think this isn’t possible, there’s just no way I’m going to be able to make it,” Johnsen Sarber said. “Then other times I think I’ve got really great committee people and they’re helping me out the best they can, even though they’ve got busy lives. I’m just figuring I’m not a quitter. I’m going to give it my best try.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for an executive order to extend the petition deadline three weeks to May 12.

“The Bureau of Elections has received inquiries regarding the ability of petition gatherers to collect and submit signature petitions, including candidates with an April 21 filing deadline,” the Secretary of State website reads. “As of now, all statutory requirements remain in place.”

Johnsen Sarber had hoped to gather most of her signatures at the West Michigan Women’s Expo and Irish on Ionia, both of which were canceled. Then came the state’s stay-home order.

“I didn’t even feel comfortable going around my neighborhood asking people at that point, so that really put a major kink in the plan,” Johnsen Sarber said.

Her backup plan is mailing out petitions, an expensive proposition, she said, and not nearly as personal.

“It’s not a good compromise to meeting people in person and explaining who you are and what you’re doing,” she said.

The secretary of state, in a statement, said this shows the need for change:

“We have needed our signature gathering protocols to evolve for some time to utilize modern technology,” Benson said. “All options should be on the table, including collection of virtual signatures, especially if they enable us to improve the accuracy of signatures and reduce fraud. The goal is to continue to ensure sufficiently supported items make it to the ballot, and we are engaging in discussions on this issue with several legislators as well as other Secretaries of State.”

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