MADISON — Candidates seeking to get their name on the fall ballot have gotten creative as they try to collect signatures on nomination papers during the coronavirus pandemic.
In normal circumstances, candidates would spend the time between April 15 to June 1 going door to door or showing up at festivals, farmer’s markets or the local library to collect enough signatures. The signature requirements range from a minimum of 200 for the Assembly to a minimum of 400 for the state Senate to a minimum of 1,000 for congressional candidates. The highest threshold is a minimum of 2,000 signatures for statewide office.
But social distancing requirements and Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order ruled out things like going door to door. And the Wisconsin Elections Commission said it didn’t have authority to make changes to the number of signatures required on nomination papers. So candidates have found other methods of reaching out.
“The traditional route is not available, so that means getting creative,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.
Goyke said he has circulated nomination papers to supporters by mail, a method WEC commissioner backed during a recent meeting. At the meeting, commissioners reaffirmed the validity of so-called “single signed and circulated” nomination papers, in which a person signs as both a nominator and circulator.
But Goyke said he only wants to use the signatures he collects by mail as an extra boost after he clears the minimum threshold with signatures collected in person.
“There seems to be, every electoral cycle, some kind of nomination signature drama, so my strategy is to get the requisite number myself and it’s going pretty well so far,” he said.
That strategy entails setting up a table on his front porch nearly every day with nomination papers, unused pens and sanitary equipment.
“It’s a lot of sitting on a Saturday morning shouting at my neighbors as they walked by to come over and sign,” Goyke said. “That involves a lot more direct outreach to friends and neighbors, to ask them to take that proactive step. In place of me coming to them, it’s them coming to me.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, has taken that idea and supercharged it.
In an interview with WisPolitics.com, Pocan said his initial idea was similar to Goyke’s: put the nomination papers out on his porch and ask people to stop by and fill them out. But after a conversation with state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, he decided to scale up that operation.
“We started thinking in our campaign, ‘Well, what if we had a hundred people do that?’” he said. “If we can get even 10 signatures at 80 percent of the locations — 800 signatures is nearly enough alone to get on the ballot.”
Pocan’s campaign is moving forward with the idea. Homes around the 2nd Congressional District, denoted by a “Sign Nomination Papers for Mark Pocan Here” yard sign, will have tables, nomination forms and a new pen for each signer.
Pocan says he hopes the yard signs will be the primary driver of traffic to the locations. He also plans to put out the locations on social media and through an email campaign.
“We’re hoping it works out as a really powerful day of getting signatures,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher is opting for a more mobile approach.
The Green Bay Republican, in partnership with the Brown County Republican Party, was holding a drive-thru nomination paper signing event.
A spokesman for Gallagher’s campaign said the event at the Brown County GOP headquarters in Allouez was designed to allow people to either sign or drop off nomination papers that had already been filled out for both Gallagher and other candidates.
Under the drive-thru process, people will provide their addresses and will be informed of candidates they can sign for. Papers for those candidates will be brought to their cars where they can then sign and drive away, all while practicing social distancing and good hygiene.
Both state parties are playing a role in helping candidates collect signatures as well.
Spokeswoman Alesha Guenther told WisPolitics.com the state GOP is providing an online database of nomination papers for the party’s state and federal candidates.
“People can go on and find their districts, find out who the elected officials are running for office in their districts, download the papers, sign them and send them in,” she said.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin is also providing an online database. Spokeswoman Courtney Beyer told WisPolitics.com the state party is encouraging county party leaders to distribute the link to their members.
Of the dozen lawmakers and candidates who spoke to WisPolitics.com for this story, most said the restrictions on face-to-face interaction created an advantage for incumbents.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke was one of the few to disagree. The Kaukauna Republican said both state parties had “significant lists” of donors and supporters and highlighted the work they were doing to support their candidates.
But Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he believed lists of contacts developed directly by candidates would prove to be more fruitful, giving an advantage to lawmakers with experience on the campaign trail.
“It certainly does benefit incumbents more and creates issues for first-time candidates,” Hintz said.
Jacob Malinowski — a Democratic first-time candidate challenging Rep. Ken Skowronski, R-Franklin, for the 82nd Assembly District in the Milwaukee suburbs — is turning to technology to mitigate that edge.
Malinowski, a 22-year-old self-described “digital native,” said he saw campaigns turning to drive-thru signature initiatives but wanted to do something different.
“We said, ‘Okay, how do we replace this whole system?’ And the first thing that came to mind was like a Google form,” he said in an interview with WisPolitics.com. “We went into the mindset of: If someone wants to sign this form, we just want to know who it is and we will figure it out afterward.”
Malinowski embedded the form — which includes a potential signer’s name, municipality, contact information and the best way to get a copy of the nomination papers — on his campaign website and was stunned by the results.
“We got 150 commitments in the first 24 hours, and in the first two weeks, we’re already at around 350 commitments, with 150 to 160 physical signatures on the desk and across from me,” he said.
The wide range of options offered by Malinowski has put the onus on him. While some signers have come directly to his house to drop off their papers, he told WisPolitics.com he has also hand-delivered forms directly to people who filled out his Google form.
“This was like our way of not trying to adapt around COVID-19 but to use our strengths as a candidate and a campaign,” he said.
The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.
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