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Running for Florida office during a pandemic just got easier

A new emergency order signed by Secretary of State Laurel Lee allows for the electronic submission of qualifying documents, including signed petitions.

It’s hard to get out the vote when no one can, well, get out.

Efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has shut down local governments and recently, the state, forcing Floridians to stay home and cutting into state House and Senate campaigns that face a quickly approaching May 11 petition deadline.

That changed slightly Friday morning when guidance went to candidates for the state House and Senate who are still collecting signatures in hopes of landing a spot on the 2020 ballot.

A new emergency order signed by Secretary of State Laurel Lee allows for the electronic submission of qualifying documents, including signed petitions.

The emergency rule that stripped the requirement that a campaign must present a voter’s original ink signature to be counted on a petition. Now, according to the state, signed petitions can either be scanned and faxed to campaigns or uploaded to secure sites like DocuSign for transmittal.

“The pandemic really put the whole process to a standstill,” said Key West Democrat Clint Barras, who is running to replace Republican Rep. Holly Raschein in House District 120. “You don’t want to go door to door, passing a pen back and forth.”

Ryan Morales, a Democrat running for a House seat that covers much of Lake County, said the digital push may help him get the signatures he needs to make it on the ballot. He is still missing about 1,000 of the signatures he needs before the May 11 deadline.

Morales, whose wife has an autoimmune disorder, said he feels at ease knowing he now has options to campaign from home without risking bringing home an infection.

“It’s funny that Florida is actually being pushed to move forward in elections with technology,” he said. “We could have done this years ago.”

What about congressional races?

However, some candidates say the order didn’t go far enough.

Michael Bluemling Jr., a Delray Beach Republican running for U.S. House District 21, started a petition among candidates for Lee to waive fees because raising money during a coronavirus has proven tricky. He also hoped for an extended deadline to collect signatures. It costs $10,440 to qualify as a partisan congressional candidate. Those with no party affiliation pay $6,960.

The emergency order doesn’t help him or other congressional candidates, because their deadline to collect signatures already passed on March 24.

“There’s no extension for the deadline; no one is contributing to campaigns,” he said. “It’s not right for candidates running under these circumstances.”

The Florida Democratic Party sent a letter to Lee on March 25 asking for not only approval of digital signatures but to extend the deadline to submit petition as well.

Former Broward County School Board candidate Elijah Manley, who is running to oust state Rep. Bobby DuBose in House District 94, said he worries about the voters in his district who may not have a computer from which they can print and fax. The state didn’t give clear guidance on whether people can email their signatures to campaigns or fill out an online form.

“At first it seemed like a really good order,” said Manley, of Fort Lauderdale. “But how do we get this to people who don’t have computers? The burden is left entirely on the candidates with no clarification.”

A technological challenge

Andre Miranda, an 18-year-old student from Dania Beach, who knocked on doors to collect signatures for Manley’s campaign, said his job will pivot to electronic “door-knocking” through emails and social media.

But for those without access to technology?

“We don’t have a plan for it,” he said.

He said they may consider calling voters and reaching an agreement to where they can mail them a petition directly.

Even before the emergency order was put out, Democratic activists had scaled back voter registration plans and focused more on mail voting. Republicans also started to lean on voter data to expand digital outreach.

As Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa told the Miami Herald last week: “It was just upending our program completely and having to do a 180-degree pivot, that was nerve racking.”

Miami Herald staff writers Bianca Padró Ocasio and David Smiley contributed to this report.

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