A Richmond judge on Monday lowered the threshold for mayoral candidates to qualify for the November ballot and extended the filing deadline, citing “extraordinary circumstances” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richmond Circuit Court judge Joi Taylor ruled candidates could appear on the ballot if they submitted 150 signatures from registered voters, with at least 10 in each of the nine City Council districts, by June 23.

The decision came in response to a lawsuit filed by Tracey Mclean, a candidate for mayor who asked the court to reduce the outline in the City Charter, and extend the original deadline set by state law. Normally, mayoral candidates are required to gather 500 handwritten signatures from voters, including 50 in each of the nine council districts. The original deadline was June 9.

“In an ordinary election cycle, the foregoing requirements are a constitutionally permissible means of protecting the commonwealth’s interest in conducting fair and orderly elections as well as its interest in ensuring that candidates for office demonstrate some modicum of support before being placed on the ballot,” Judge Taylor stated in her order. “But this is not an ordinary election.”

She continued later: “Under these extraordinary circumstances, the process of gathering hand-signed petitions is uncharacteristically challenging. Opportunities to gather petition signatures are unusually limited. Would-be petition signers are predictably reluctant to break from social distancing guidance to handle a clipboard and sign a petition.”

Mclean, a 49-year-old small business owner and first-time candidate for elective office, filed the lawsuit earlier this month as it appeared her efforts to make the ballot could fall short.

Public health guidelines posed a major obstacle for her to meet the standard requirements, she said.

Similar legal challenges have arisen across the country over the past three months. Candidates, as well as groups pushing for ballot initiatives, have sued for less stringent requirements given social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Mclean requested the court halve the total number of signatures required of mayoral candidates from 500 to 250, and reduce the district-level requirement from 50 to 10, according to her complaint. She also sought an extension until Aug. 11.

Her lawsuit named Richmond General Registrar J. Kirk Showalter, the Virginia Department of Elections, members of Richmond’s Electoral Board and the state Board of Elections, as well as three other prospective candidates for the office.

Showalter’s office, which is responsible for conducting elections in the city, told the court it could accommodate an extension until June 23 without interfering in its preparation, according to Taylor’s order.

When she filed the suit, Mclean had gathered about 230 signatures, but none in two of the nine council districts. Since then, she learned more than 100 of them were not valid.

As of Monday, she said she needed to gather more signatures in six of the nine districts to meet the new requirements. She said she was pleased with the court’s decision, and she hopes it aids other candidates seeking to make the ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Said Mclean, “I’m excited about the outcome and I hope the decision can actually benefit us all.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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