Coronavirus throws electioneering for a loop

On Saturday, as part of the state government’s efforts to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his emergency powers to curtail the petitioning process for candidates aiming to make the ballot in the state’s June primaries.

By executive order, that process — traditionally a door-to-door, face-to-face affair performed by a candidate and campaign volunteers — is suspended at 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 17. All petitions must be filed by Friday, March 20. 

The original deadline for filing petitions had been April 2. The petitioning season opened February 25.

To compensate for the abbreviated petitioning period, Cuomo also cut the number of signatures needed to make the primary ballot to 30 percent of the previous requirement. That means, for example, that a candidate for state Assembly needs to submit 150 valid signatures instead of 500.

Buffalo attorney Adam Bojak is running for the open 149th District Assembly seat. (The current seat holder, Sean Ryan, is running for the 60th District seat in the state Senate.) Bojak’s declared opponents in the Democratic primary, which will likely determine the winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, are Jonathan Rivera and Robert Quintana.

Rivera has the endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Committee, numerous community groups and elected officials. He also has two decades experience running campaigns and getting other candidates on the ballot. Rivera told Investigative Post he is confident he has more than enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Bojak said he is confident, too, though he comes to the task as a political outsider — with no party support and a relatively small team of volunteers drawn from the circle of city-based progressive activists supporting his candidacy.

“It definitely threw a wrench into our whole operation,” Bojak said. “We were obviously planning on doing this for a few more weeks. Over the weekend we had to make a really strong push…[but] we feel really good about what we’re going to be turning in this week.”

Investigative Post could not reach Quintana — who announced his candidacy last Monday in the Buffalo News — for comment.

Last year’s election cycle was fraught with challenges to petitioners, too. The change in the date of state office primary elections — from September to June, to coincide with the state’s federal primary elections — shortened the timeframe in which candidates could plan and execute petitioning campaigns. An especially bitter February aggravated matters, especially in Western New York. 

To address those challenges last year, the state legislature reduced the number of signatures candidates needed to qualify for the ballot by 25 percent. 

Our Weekly Newsletter

The weather in 2020 has been comparatively mild, but the coronavirus has been far more disruptive than any snowstorm or cold snap.

Last year, a brace of prospective challengers (all women) to incumbent members of Buffalo’s Common Council (all men) failed to qualify for the ballot when the validity of their nominating petitions was challenged in court by their opponents. Neither the change in primary date nor the bad weather alone was at fault. The challengers simply failed to navigate the state’s nominating petition process.

Bojak, who considered but then rejected a run for Common Council last year, understands the reasoning behind consolidating the primaries in June to save the state money and drive voter participation. But he thinks the whole process needs to be examined.

“I think what it does is it highlights the high barrier to entry in our political system,” Bojak said. “What it means for people on the ground is that if you’re not coming with either a lot of money or party backing, you have an incredibly high hill to climb.”