Robert Gehrke: Utah Republicans running for governor find that gathering signatures is daunting — and for some insurmountable

Robert Gehrke

About three weeks ago, Spencer Cox’s gubernatorial campaign was the first to submit about 29,000 signatures — piled six feet high in his trademark green and yellow boxes — touting his status as the first in the state to submit signatures in a bid to make the primary ballot.

It was even reported in some quarters that he was the first to qualify for the ballot, which, it turns out, he wasn’t and he may not be.

A little over a quarter of the signatures submitted were invalid, which is not unusual in this sort of endeavor.

Nine days later, former state GOP chairman Thomas Wright, who had hired a private company called Gather, submitted about 30,000 signatures, but he came up about 1,200 short, too.

Since then, both campaigns have turned in more, trying to clear the 28,000 threshold and secure a spot among the primary field.

Again, it’s not a surprise to end up short — in fact, there is a strategic advantage to being the first to submit, which I’ll explain later. But it does point to how challenging it is to clear that threshold with six candidates all asking voters to sign petitions.

Indeed, the same day Wright submitted his packets, Aimee Winder Newton announced she was abandoning her signature-gathering effort. She said 300 volunteers had rounded up thousands of signatures, but it was clear the obstacle was going to be insurmountable.

“We got to the point where, for us, we knew we were going to have to pay somebody and we were faced with the decision of: Do we pay $200,000 to finish them up or do you save that for a media buy?” she said.

Even if she did pay signature gatherers, she said, there were no guarantees they’d get the 28,000 in time.

Walking neighborhoods in the middle of winter collecting signatures isn’t easy. People are only home at about one of five doors knocked on said Tanner Leatham, co-founder of the Gather firm, who talked to me while he was driving to turn in another 2,200 signatures for Wright.

Utah’s only had a few elections where this signature path has been in place and this governor’s race really is the first time so many statewide candidates — Cox, Wright, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jeff Burningham, Jan Garbett and formerly Winder Newton — have been gathering signatures. It creates a mathematical challenge. For all six to qualify, this group would need a minimum of 168,000 valid signatures.

The word “valid” is the key. Up in Davis County, temp workers hired by the lieutenant governor’s office review the signatures to determine if they match those on file — either from voter registrations or the driver license database.

The voters also have to be registered Republicans and it’s not uncommon for people to think they’re registered — maybe they always vote Republican — but not actually have registered with the party.

On top of that, voters can only sign one petition in a race, they can’t sign for multiple candidates, and it doesn’t matter when the petition was signed, it matters when the signatures are submitted and validated. That’s where there is an advantage to turn in signatures first and why the Cox campaign was in such a hurry to get its signatures submitted first.

Still one in every four signatures was invalid. That rate will likely be even higher for the campaigns turning their packets in later meaning if they were all to qualify, they would have to get signatures from as many as 230,000 Republicans — about a third of the roughly 700,000 registered Republicans in the state.

What is more likely to happen is candidates will abandon the effort, like Winder Newton did, or come up short. Leatham said he thinks, in a best-case scenario, three or possibly four candidates qualify via signatures.

“If I was on those campaigns that haven’t turned in signatures yet, I’d be really nervous,” said Austin Cox, Spencer Cox’s campaign manager, since the later the signatures come in, the more likely they are to have high invalidation rates and, because of the lag in processing signatures, not a lot of time to make up any shortfall.

Huntsman, Burningham and Garbett have not turned in their first batch of signatures (they have to gather at least 28,000 before they can make that first submission). The deadline for Republicans is April 11.

The candidates for governor aren’t the only ones trying to overcome the logistical challenge. In the 1st Congressional District, nine Republicans are running for the seat held by retiring Rep. Rob Bishop, and all of them are gathering signatures.

Each needs 7,000 signatures, meaning 63,000 total, plus about 16,000 more if a quarter of those gathered are invalid.

It’s a lot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The signature thresholds were specifically designed to make it hard to get on the ballot, which keeps the traditional path viable. That’s the party caucuses and conventions, where up to two candidates can emerge. But the signature path shouldn’t be unreachable or prohibitively expensive for candidates, either.

Next year (after the current election is over) the Legislature should revisit the signature thresholds and consider replacing a set number with a percentage of the electorate in given districts. That could open the door to the best candidates — not just those who can woo convention delegates or dump big money into signature gathering.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman.