Marty Walsh Makes a Weird Claim

A white mayoral candidate says ballot requirements hurt minorities. Huh?

Mayoral candidate Marty Walsh suggested in a press release today that racial minorities have a tougher time meeting signature requirements in Boston than white candidates.

I asked several people who are managing, or have managed, city-wide campaigns for black and Hispanic candidates, and could not find one who agreed.

State representative Walsh, who has already qualified for the ballot as a mayoral candidate, issued a press release this morning calling on the Boston City Council to pass a home-rule petition changing the nomination rules for future Boston elections. Currently, mayoral candidates must obtain 3,000 nominating signatures from registered city voters, and each registered voter can only sign for one candidate. Walsh, arguing that this is too burdensome a requirement, wants registered voters to be allowed to sign more than one candidate’s nominating papers.

All well and good, and he’s not alone in that sentiment.

But here’s the direct quote from the release (emphasis added):

“That’s not right,” said Rep. Walsh. “It’s an unfair barrier to getting on the ballot, and it mostly affects candidates of color, candidates who aren’t as well funded as others, and candidates without networks that take years to build.

His last two points about money and organization may be uncontroversial, but for the life of me I can’t understand why he thinks the signature requirement — and specifically the one-petition-per-voter rule — affects minority candidates more than white ones.

In response to my inquiries, the Walsh campaign sent the following:

Marty believes that ballot access is a fundamental principle of our democracy. Democracy should be more, rather than less inclusive. The nomination paper process as it now exists represents an antiquated bureaucratic hurdle that serves no apparent public policy purpose. As Marty said in his statement, this penalizes candidates who come to a race with less money and less established networks. While this can affect candidates of every background, it is especially concerning that it disproportionately affects traditionally underrepresented groups, including potential candidates of color.

I honestly don’t know what evidence Walsh has for this claim of disproportionate effect. Nor did any of the campaign veterans I spoke with.

The last similar large-field city-wide campaign I can think of—where many were competing for a finite pool of signatures—was the 2009 at-large city council race, when two vacancies occurred. In that instance (where registered voters could sign up to four candidates’ petitions), several people did not meet the qualifications—but nine of the 15 who qualified for the ballot were “candidates of color.”

Amir Quadeer Shakir, aka MC Spice, campaign manager for John Laing, rejected Walsh’s suggestion. Shakir says he supports the idea of changing the one-petition-per-voter rule, but says “they shouldn’t do it because of race. Boston is too diverse to make it about that.”

Others I spoke with, who did not want to be named criticizing Walsh, called the language patronizing, and perhaps even offensive. None said that they have found it harder for minority candidates to obtain nominating signatures, or that they had any reason to think that minority candidates were disproportionately more likely to fail to meet the signature requirements.

Many of the mayoral candidates currently seeking signatures are “candidates of color,” including Laing, Felix Arroyo, John Barros, Charles Clemons, Miniard Culpepper, Will Dorcena, Althea Garrison, Charlotte Golar Richie, and Charles Yancey. I have never heard any of them, or any of their staff, complain that the regulations place them at any disadvantage. Nor do I think any white candidates, this year or in previous mayoral elections, felt they were at any advantage in obtaining signatures.