Ready for the next election? Ready or not, here it comes — beginning Jan. 2

State law provides wide window for signature-gathering hopefuls to declare their candidacy.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A voter drops her ballot at an official ballot drop box at the Salt Lake County complex on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Less than two months since Utahns voted in November’s election, campaign preparations for the 2018 election are due to begin again as soon as next week.

It’s been less than two months since Utahns voted in November’s election — but campaign preparations for the 2018 election are already about to begin. The period for a candidate to declare an intent to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot opens Tuesday.

The filing period remains open through March 15, overlapping and dwarfing the one-week window (March 9-15) for candidates to appear in person to formally declare their candidacy.

The volume of signatures a candidate must accumulate to earn a place on the ballot under Utah law means it may be smart to start sooner rather than later, said Justin Lee, director of elections in the lieutenant governor’s office.

“Earlier is usually better,” he said. “We’ve got to verify all the signatures, so we certainly appreciate having the time to verify them.”

Under current law, candidates for a U.S. Senate seat need to gather 28,000 signatures to earn a place on the ballot. For a U.S. House seat, that number is 7,000. To get on the primary ballot for the state Senate, candidates are required to gather 2,000 signatures and state House hopefuls need 1,000.

Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, said those thresholds may create a “significant burden” for candidates and argues the requirements are so tough they could likely have been declared unconstitutional if there was not also an alternative path to the ballot through party conventions.

“There are some jurisdictions where even a Republican candidate would try to get 1,000 signatures for a House race in a jurisdiction where there are only 3,000 registered Republicans — which means you’d have to find one out of three [voters],” McKeown said. “That’s a hypothetical number, but the issue is that it prohibits signature gathering. We want to make signature gathering an option for any race.”

Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune Rich McKeown, executive chair of Count My Vote, speaks to the media at a press conference announcing a deal between Count My Vote and lawmakers at the Capitol on Sunday, March 2, 2014. Count My Vote members recently filed paperwork with Lt. Gov Spencer Cox to begin the process of getting an initiative on the 2018 ballot to fix some of the “barriers” found within that legislation.

This will be only the third year candidates can get on the primary ballot through the signature-gathering model, thanks to SB54, which passed in the 2014 legislative session. That compromise legislation — aimed at halting a ballot initiative that would have ended traditional convention nominations — created a hybrid system that allows candidates to qualify for a primary election through either the convention system or signature gathering.

The Utah Republican Party said it was not included in those negotiations between Count My Vote and the Republican-dominated Legislature and sued to overturn the law, contending the state could not tell it how to select its own nominees. After Utah courts ruled against the GOP, the case was appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision pending. Some Republican lawmakers have also attempted to overturn SB54 in the Legislature, but all such efforts have been defeated.

SB54 was considered a compromise with Count My Vote members back in 2014. Count My Vote recently filed paperwork with Lt. Gov Spencer Cox to begin the process of putting a question to voters on the 2018 ballot that would dramatically reduce the number of signatures required from candidates.

Lee said the lieutenant governor’s office doesn’t have a position on whether the required number of signatures is reasonable.

“It’s a policy decision that, you know, the initiative sponsors and the legislators are working out,” he said. “From our perspective, we’re verifying signatures. We don’t really have a position as to whether they’re high or low.”

Despite the challenges signature-gathering candidates may face under the current system, Lee said they may see other benefits from the process.

“A lot of people see it as an insurance,” Lee said. “Even if you go to convention and you’re not sure what happens but you gather the signatures, then you’re certainly going to be at least on the primary [ballot].”

That’s precisely what happened in this year’s special congressional election, where Provo Mayor John Curtis was defeated by former state Rep. Chris Herrod in the Republican Convention but went on to handily win the primary and general election.

Those running for federal or statewide office need to declare with the lieutenant governor’s office; all other candidates should declare with their county clerk. The final deadline for candidates to submit signatures is two weeks prior to their party’s convention.

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