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Candidates who are broke will get a break when filling to get their names on the ballot

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman talks to reporters in her office on Jan. 15, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – Washington candidates who can’t afford the filing fee to get their names on the ballot won’t have to take the alternate route of gathering a voter’s signature for every $1 in the fee.

An emergency proclamation signed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee suspends the signature requirement for this filing period, which begins Monday and ends May 15. Gathering signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic “runs contrary to recommended public health practices,” Inslee’s office said in announcing the waiver.

Those candidates will be required to sign a form under penalty of perjury that says they “lack sufficient assets or income at the time of filing to pay the filing fee.” It will be a public record along with their petition of candidacy.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she requested the waiver in part because of the danger of exposure to the virus to people signing and circulating petitions. At one valid signature for every dollar of a filing fee, a candidate for governor would need 1,822 signatures, and a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives would need 1,740 signatures.

“It’s a time-driven thing, trying to get a thousand or more signatures in a week in this time of COVID-19,” she said.

Most serious candidates for major office already have announced campaigns and started collecting contributions, Wyman said. Voters would be suspicious if they claimed they were unable to pay.

Some county elections officials have worried that removing the signature requirement will lead to an increase in frivolous candidates, Wyman said. She can’t be sure that it won’t – the signature requirement is one way of winnowing out frivolous candidates – but thinks it’s a necessary option this year.

The state elections office also is struggling with two other requirements that pose difficult questions during a pandemic. One is the requirement for minor party presidential candidates to hold a convention in the next three months with at least 100 people and submit at least 1,000 signatures from registered voters to place the nominee on the November ballot. Holding a gathering when social distancing rules are in place and collecting signatures are problems during the pandemic, Wyman said.

The office still is working on whether to seek an emergency waiver of those requirements. Even with the law in place, Washington usually has some minor party presidential candidates on its November ballot. In 2016, it had nominees of the Libertarian, Green, Constitution, Socialist Workers and Socialism and Liberation parties along with the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Federal Election Commission lists 1,095 filings for various presidential candidates, and more than 600 of them are listed as something other than Democrats nor Republicans.

Wyman is worried that waiving the convention and petition process could “open the floodgates” and result in people deciding to file just to get their name on the ballot as a representative of something like the “Toga Party.” A decision hasn’t been made yet.

Political activists also are concerned about circulating petitions for initiatives and referendums, which require hundreds of thousands of signatures to get a place on the ballot. Those campaigns typically collect a large share of their signatures in the summer at fairs, festivals and busy shopping malls.

Wyman already has notified those campaigns the state elections office won’t reject petitions that don’t meet the regular requirements for the size of paper, width of margins or other technical criteria. A state Supreme Court ruling allows the office some leeway on those points, although petitions will have to have the necessary language like ballot title, summary and the law being proposed or removed.

The state can’t waive or reduce the number of signatures required or extend the deadline for submitting petitions, she said.

“That’s a hard stop for these campaigns. It’s in the Constitution,” Wyman said. There’s not enough time to amend the Constitution to make those changes.