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Coronavirus altering WNY campaigns, raising questions about election dates

The COVID-19 virus is suddenly changing how politics is conducted in New York State.

Candidates in the 27th Congressional District GOP primary slated for June 23 are now rescheduling fundraisers, ending door-to-door campaigning, and preparing to submit designating petitions with a drastically reduced number of required signatures following an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

And after scheduled presidential primaries in Georgia and Louisiana were delayed over concerns about possible voter exposure to the novel coronavirus, questions are surfacing about whether the April 28 special election to fill the vacant 27th District seat could also be delayed.

"We've been hearing rumblings about the special and the primary," said Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr., the Erie County comptroller running in the June 23 primary that follows the April 28 special election.

"We are in uncharted territory here," he added. "We may have to play a lot of this by ear."

The most immediate consequence stemming from coronavirus concerns surrounds a change in the ballot qualification process for 27th District primary candidates. Republicans such as Mychajliw, Beth A. Parlato and Christopher L. Jacobs now must end collection of petition signatures at 5 p.m. Tuesday and will submit them by Friday.

The previous filing period was scheduled for March 30 to April 2.

John W. Conklin, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, explained that candidates and voters alike have expressed concerns about face-to-face contact when volunteers knock on the doors of party members seeking petition signatures.

Cuomo's executive order also shortened the signature window and reduced the number needed to qualify for the ballot. Cuomo acknowledged late last week that change was needed, and Conklin said the number of signatures needed has been reduced from 5% to 1.5% of enrolled voters in a political unit.

For the 27th District primary on June 23, that means the old requirement of 1,250 signatures is reduced to 375 for Democrats and Republicans, and less for minor parties.

"The idea is that most political campaigns have probably reached their petition threshold and so they need to get their people out of the field, and not go door to door and be exposed to the potential communication of the coronavirus," he said.

Conklin said that after the governor's executive order, more changes could stem from two bills introduced by the Senate and Assembly chairmen of elections committees to be addressed when the Legislature reconvenes on Wednesday.

It does not appear that the reduced petition requirements have affected the congressional candidates, who said they all had met the original signature totals and more.

"We were more than prepared to qualify for the higher threshold," Mychajliw said, "and I believe it will be almost impossible for anyone to knock me off the ballot."

But other basic requirements of conducting a political campaign now present challenges. Parlato said Monday she was forced to cancel four "meet and greet" or fundraising events because of concerns about gathering dozens of supporters in one venue. The cancellations included a Niagara County event Monday night, a downtown affair for attorneys on Wednesday, an Alden American Legion fundraiser, and an April 16 event in New York City.

But Parlato said she remains unconcerned because she believes the needed funds will eventually arrive.

"We might have to make a loan to the campaign and postpone the fundraisers until May," she said. "We'll have the money."

Parlato said she has spent three to four hours per day knocking on doors to introduce herself to voters and distribute campaign literature.

"I'm a grass-roots candidate, but that will now change," she said. "I won't be knocking on 100 doors a day."

She will now concentrate on video productions and other means to communicate with voters via email or social media.

Mychajliw also said he will probably postpone fundraisers later this month at the DNIPRO Ukrainian Cultural Center on Genesee Street, and at Kodiak Jack's in Marilla. He now expects to schedule a "high end" fundraiser in April.







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