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Third parties are fighting for survival during the coronavirus pandemic.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 100,000 people across the United States and it’s changed the way political campaigns are run and made traditional canvasing impossible. For third parties like Greens and Libertarians, this could spell doom as collecting signatures are often a requirement for ballot access. Some states are taking action. Vermont waived signature requirements to be listed on their state ballot and a judge eased signature requirements in Illinois. Our next guest filed a federal lawsuit to get third party candidates on the ballot in Maryland. Andy Ellis is the co-chair of the Maryland Green Party. Thanks so much for joining us.

Andy Ellis: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this. I’m glad to be here and spread the word about how we need to have choices in our democracy even during a pandemic.

Jaisal Noor: So talk about why you filed this lawsuit against the state of Maryland. I understand that you did this jointly with another third party, the libertarian party.

Andy Ellis: Yeah, so the state of Maryland requires 10,000 valid petition signatures from registered voters in order for a third party to be on the ballot in the general election. And the deadline for that is the beginning of August and because of the COVID state of emergency, as of March 5th, the Greens and Libertarians suspended all of their in-person petitioning efforts. And given that social distancing is likely to stay in place even as the road to recovery opens some things up, we’re not going to be able to go back out into the field to petition for signatures.

So functionally what the governor’s order did was, without warning and without statutory reference, he changed the deadline from August 3rd to March 5th. And so we believe that we have a first amendment right to seek to be on the ballot. And we believe that there is a pathway in Maryland law that allows us to do so, but the governor’s state of emergency basically obliterated that pathway. And now we need to have the state of Maryland provide relief for that, so that we can be on the ballot, so the candidates can run, and so the voters who so choose can affiliate with the party of choice.

Jaisal Noor: And so what are you proposing? I know the idea of e-signatures is sort of growing in popularity. There’s discussions around that. Would that be an adequate remedy?

Andy Ellis: So we asked for two things. So the first thing we asked for was the state Board of Elections to allow electronic signatures. And on April 22nd, they did do that. We also asked for the governor to lower the threshold for the number of signatures required because we simply think that while e-signatures are a good idea, they can’t be a replacement for in-person signatures. In the past, we’ve gotten the majority of our petition signatures from going to farmer’s markets, fairs, festivals, community gatherings, things like that where there are large groups of people. And we just don’t think that e-signatures will be a replacement for that. We do think it’s a good addition to have and hopefully something that the state continues to allow going forward so that the next signature campaign can do electronic signatures and in-person. But the lawsuit is because we don’t think that we can replace in-person petitioning with online petitioning, especially when we have no idea how it works or how many people are going to be receptive to it.

Jaisal Noor: And so we know Vermont waived the requirement for signatures to get on the ballot. What are other States doing? And we know courts have weighed in too. Can you give us a lay of the land where this stands across the country right now?

Andy Ellis: Yeah. So there’s some version of electronic signatures that is being adapted in some places. Minnesota allowed electronic signatures. Utah reduced the amount by a period of time that didn’t take into account the seasonality of gathering petition signatures, as if February was as good to gather them as May would be. And if we’re gathering them outside, we can imagine that February and May are just not equal. And Virginia and Pennsylvania have lawsuits right now in order to lower the signature threshold. It’s all across the board what states are doing because ballot access laws are all across the board and sort of each state, 50 states do it different ways, but it is some combination of lowering the threshold and electronic signatures. Vermont sort of stands out in putting parties on the ballot without any petitioning.

Jaisal Noor: And of course that’s the home of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. So I guess that makes a lot of sense. I also wanted to ask you about ballot measures because ballot measures are an important way that voters can sort of bypass lawmakers to get initiatives passed. You know, in Maryland, we’ve seen a lot of progressive legislation on a local level happen through ballot measures. The public financing of elections was passed through ballot measures. An affordable housing trust fund was passed through ballot measures, things that lawmakers didn’t do that the voters took it in their own hands to do. We know in other places there’s been regressive policies passed through ballot measures. Where does that stand right now during this pandemic?

Andy Ellis: So they are facing the same thing the third parties and the unaffiliated candidates are facing. They can’t go collect signatures. It’s literally against the law to go out and petition and collect signatures up until a couple of days ago. And there’s still social distancing guidelines in place. So the petition process in the state of Maryland governs four things. It governs ballot measure, referendum of general assembly, unaffiliated candidates, and new parties. So everybody’s in the same boat to some degree. We’ve been in coalition with Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition and groups in Montgomery and in Prince George’s County. And we have developed an electronic signature platform that we’re happily sharing with them. I hope that they will be able to sue in state court over this because it’s really a state issue. The power to petition an amendment to a charter county, it comes out of the Maryland State Constitution, whereas the ability to affiliate with a political party of your choosing comes out of the first amendment of the Federal Constitution.

So our hope is that any decision that is favorable in our case will open the door for a favorable decision for them as well because it’s just simply impossible in the counties like Montgomery and Baltimore City to get 10,000 signatures electronically between now and the deadline. So again, we’re glad that they were able to get electronic signatures, but we think that they’re facing the same undue burden as a result of the COVID state of emergency as the parties are and we hope that state courts will weigh in on that and provide relief to them as well.

Jaisal Noor: All right. Andy Ellis, co-chair of the Maryland Green Party, thanks so much for joining us and we will certainly keep abreast of developments in this story.

Andy Ellis: Thank you. And we’ll let you know if anything changes.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

Studio: Will Arenas
Production: Will Arenas

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.