A new lawsuit alleges that the high-contact sport of collecting signatures to secure a spot on the June primary ballot poses an existential threat to nearly one million New Yorkers because, as currently defined, it requires in-person conversation, shared pens, and other common practices now considered life-threatening because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Filed on Monday, the suit against Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo in State Supreme Court alleges that the practice is unconstitutional because it poses a direct threat to public health, infringes on a candidate’s ability to run for office, and violates the equal protection clause given the disparate impact of the pandemic in communities of color.
The suit—filed on behalf of more than 100 candidates and their supporters statewide—is the latest step in an ongoing effort to push for the signature requirement to be suspended because of the risk it poses to public health; it comes less than a month before people are supposed to fan out to collect hundreds-to-thousands of unique signatures from registered voters.
“There are things we have to grapple with, reopening schools... reopening businesses,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, the lead plaintiff in the suit. “We should not, and don’t have to grapple with petitioning. We just don’t,” he said, while calling the need to suspend it a “no-brainer.”
Last month, the governor signed legislation that reduced the number of required signatures and cut two weeks off the amount of time candidates and their teams had to collect them. The legislation is similar to a change enacted by the governor through an executive order last March, when candidates were collecting petitions at the start of the pandemic.
Plaintiffs allege those changes still run counter to state and federal guidance that urge people to maintain at least six feet of distance from anyone outside their household. Instead will require people to go out, clipboards in hand, poised outside public locations like subways or supermarkets, or knocking door-to-door in apartment buildings, to gather the needed signatures.
The high number of candidates running for office in June is also cited in the complaint, including more than 30 candidates for mayor who, under the new threshold, would be required to collect 2,500 valid signatures. (Most campaigns collect two to three times the number that’s required to avoid being challenged by an opponent and losing the race by getting knocked off the ballot.)
New York City mayoral candidates Eric Adams, Art Chang, Carlos Menchaca and Maya Wiley are all plaintiffs in the suit.
They are being represented by attorney Arthur Schwartz, a long-serving Democratic Party district leader in Manhattan and a candidate for City Council in District 3, the seat currently held by Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
Since all State Supreme Court Justices also petitioned to get on the ballot at one point, Schwartz said he plans to ask one question: “I would ask that judge point blank if they would feel comfortable standing on a corner, in front of a grocery store, or in front of a building petitioning for his or herself to get on the ballot.”
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesperson for the governor, cited the recent legislation Cuomo signed to reduce the signature requirement, but did respond to a follow-up question about whether the state would consider suspending the requirement.
“The legislature passed a bill to address this issue less than a month ago, which the governor signed,” Azzoppardi told Gothamist/WNYC. “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," he added.
The mayor’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.