Collecting hundreds of signatures is probably one of the last things anyone wants to do during a global pandemic.
Yet that’s exactly what the five remaining candidates seeking to replace Andrew Cohen on the city council must do now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has set March 23 for their special election.
Monday, both Dan Padernacht and Eric Dinowitz were spotted around Johnson Avenue seeking the John Hancocks of 450 registered voters within Cohen’s old council district so they can have their names on that ballot.
Padernacht, a real estate lawyer and former Community Board 8 chair from Kingsbridge Heights, have said such petitioning is dangerous while the coronavirus continues to rage in this part of the city. He joined some of his fellow candidates — absent Dinowitz — last week calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend petitioning requirements like he did for elections last year.
Otherwise, Padernacht said, Cuomo and even de Blasio are potentially putting the lives of thousands of volunteers and registered voters at risk.
This new petition drive comes as public health officials say one out of every 200 people in the city has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Those same experts are predicting January will be the worst month of the pandemic yet, even with a vaccine slowly making its way around the city.
Abigail Martin, Marcos Sierra and Carlton Berkley joined Padernacht in his plea during a news conference last week. They wanted the petition requirement suspended once again, but it seems the governor wants no part of it. Instead, Padernacht and others have to collect not just 450 signatures, but actually two or three times that many to help their petition survive some of the expected legal challenges filed by other campaigns, and the Democratic party machine itself for its non-favored candidates.
Martin — who on Tuesday dropped out of the special election race with Marcos Sierra — said that between this race and the one to replace new U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres in the Fordham Heights area — thousands of unnecessary physical contacts will have to be made, which would be any virus’s preferred scenario.
“We know that with some of these vaccines, it takes time in order for people to be fully vaccinated and safe,” Martin said. “We have 12 candidates between District 11 and District 15 running. That’s over 14,000 person-to-person contacts to get enough signatures at the current requirement of 450.”
It’s even more if each candidate is forced to collect as many as 1,000 signatures, as expected.
Yet, even among those candidates calling on the governor to intervene, there are some slight differences of opinion on what that intervention should entail.
Padernacht wants to keep it simple: Waive signature-gathering altogether.
“The required petitioning will result in thousands of person-to-person contacts at a time when COVID infection rates are rising,” Padernacht said.
He also backs more permanent legislation, like the kind introduced by Councilman Ben Kallos — who represents the Upper East Side — that would waive the petitioning requirement for any candidate who also qualifies for matching campaign funds from the city. To get those extra dollars, candidates must receive at least 75 individual donations of $10 each from voters living within their district, and $5,000 from donors in the city at large.
It’s the kind of measure many other states use in elections, Padernacht said — instituting a minimum fundraising requirement to show a candidate has serious enough support to warrant a spot on the ballot, without having to collect and verify signatures.
If neither of these ideas gain traction, Padernacht said his last resort is one also supported by Dinowitz — lowering the number of signatures candidates have to collect, thus reducing in-person interactions as much as possible.
The city’s elections board declined to comment, and neither the mayor nor the governor responded to requests.
Jessica Haller wasn’t part of Padernacht’s news conference last week, but told The Riverdale Press she fully agrees there needs to be an alternative to in-person petitioning.
“There are multiple ways to gather people’s support that don’t require hand-to-hand interactions,” Haller said. Especially “in a day where hand-to-hand interactions need to be limited.”
It’s awkward to collect signatures during a pandemic, she said, especially with everyone sharing pens and paper while standing close together — the kinds of activities specifically discouraged by public health officials.
There are “people who are like, ‘I’ll volunteer, but I just had COVID,’” Haller said. “I mean, I literally called a couple and they said, ‘We always would petition for folks. But we just had COVID. We’re done.’”
Dinowitz, son of Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, said he’s for lowering the signature threshold, but he’s against tying ballot access to the city’s matching fund requirement.
“There has to be a threshold of someone demonstrating support in the community,” the public school educator said. “I don’t think that that should be based solely on one’s ability to raise money.”
The real priority, Dinowitz said, should be expanding mail-in and early voting for the special elections.
In an op-ed that appeared in the Gotham Gazette just before Christmas, Martin took her ideas a step further, calling for elections to be conducted completely by mail, or even postponed until more people feel safe from the coronavirus.
Delaying the election would mean longer periods some districts, like Cohen’s, would be without any representation at City Hall. That means Martin’s suggestion doesn’t have much support among her former peers. Delaying even four to six weeks doesn’t make much sense, Haller said, because it could put the special election in April or May.
“Then why don’t you just wait until June?” Haller said. “Just do it in June, a special and a primary in one ballot.”
One last option the council candidates have is to take Cuomo to court. But that’s not an attractive option, Padernacht said, because the legal process would be cost-prohibitive for candidates like him, limited to about $190,000 in total spending.
“So beginning an expensive legal process, really aside from the amount of time you need — and money,” Padernacht said, “it’s not realistic.”