As of late Monday, the Count My Vote initiative appeared to need county clerks to verify just 85 more voter signatures to qualify it for the Nov. 6 ballot.
Then again, maybe the group will need hundreds or even thousands more — because opponents are spending big money trying to persuade petition signers to withdraw their names, and throw a wrench into the works.
That opposition group, Keep My Voice, alleges Count My Vote originally misled many voters about what they were signing — with paid signature gatherers claiming it was to put Mitt Romney on the ballot, or to help ensure low-income kids receive school lunch.
In a counterpunch, Count My Vote says opponents now are using threats and intimidation to pressure people to remove their names.
“Every time with initiatives, it seems like opposing sides say the other is not explaining themselves well enough. And there is some anecdotal evidence,” said Justin Lee, state elections director for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
The latest dispute comes as competing initiatives hoped to change a 2014 election law, called SB54, in different ways. The law created a dual path to the ballot for candidates: through the caucus-convention system and/or by collecting signatures.
The Keep My Voice initiative — pushed by a conservative wing of the GOP — hoped to return to only the caucus-convention system that gives conservative delegates more control to choose nominees. But the group conceded it failed to collect anywhere near the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, and withdrew its application.
Meanwhile, Count My Vote, pushed mostly by moderate Republicans seeking more choice for voters, seeks to cement the new law into place, but reduce the number of signatures that candidates need to qualify for the ballot.
The group has said it gathered 175,000 signatures, well beyond the 113,000 needed to qualify (to match 10 percent of the number of presidential votes cast in the last election).
But it also needs to meet that 10 percent of presidential votes threshold in 26 of 29 state Senate districts in Utah. As of Monday, it achieved that in 25 districts — and was 85 votes short in the last district needed — with more than 124,000 signatures verified overall.
But Keep My Voice is trying to reverse that.
Disclosure forms show it had spent $174,000 as of last week to pay a company called Sig6 to contact Count My Vote signers and ask them to remove their names.
“It’s a combination of volunteer efforts and that company going door to door,” said Dave Bateman, who is financing most of the Keep My Voice effort.
Bateman is CEO of the Entrata software company, and the business donated $344,000 to Keep My Voice this year. Bateman also recently acquired the Utah Republican Party’s debt from its legal battles to fight SB54, which allows those lawsuits to continue.
“I went out myself last weekend” to try to persuade voters, Bateman said. He said many voters alleged they had been told by the Count My Vote petitioners “it was to get Mitt Romney on the ballot. They were ticked. They said they would never sign another ballot initiative in their life, that they had been taken advantage of.”
In online posts, Bateman also linked to a YouTube audio file purportedly capturing a Count My Vote signature gatherer saying the petition was pushing to help ensure needy kids obtained school lunches.
“Nobody has any clue what they are signing is what this amounts to, and they are purposefully being misled,” Bateman charged.
Taylor Morgan, co-executive director of Count My Vote, denied that its signature gatherers used misrepresentation. He countered that his group received several complaints that Keep My Voice sent people “to their door, threatening them and intimidating them.”
It’s a strategy used at least once before In Utah. In 2002 the low-level radioactive waste company EnergySolutions — then called Envirocare — was the main backer of an effort to get Utahns to remove their signatures from an initiative to hike taxes on the waste and ban certain kinds of it. The proposal did make it to the ballot but was defeated by voters.
In the current campaign, Keep My Voice also sent mailers to some petition signers. One pictured State Auditor John Dougall and another pictured Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, urging signers to withdraw their names so that Utah would not a “follow California’s failed political system.”
Dougall said Monday he once lived in California, and feels voters there lack close contact with candidates because it doesn’t use a caucus-convention system.
The mailer also included a form that said it “was approved by the Lt. Governor’s Office to remove your name from a petition.” Lee, with the lieutenant governor’s office, says Keep My Voice asked for all the information needed, but his office never approved it.
Lee said that by law, petition signers have until May 15 to provide forms or letters to county clerks asking that their names be removed from petitions. That is also the deadline for county clerks to finish verifying names collected for ballot initiatives.
Lee said that for initiatives that appear to qualify for the ballot on May 15, county clerks will then verify names of those who have asked to be removed to see if that knocks the initiatives off of the ballot.
Lee said he has had no reports from county clerks about how many people may have asked that their names be removed.
But Bateman said, just on Saturday, 256 people removed their signatures as requested by a group he worked with in Spanish Fork.
He said Keep My Voice is targeting Senate districts where he thinks they could remove enough signatures to halt Count My Vote — including areas of Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, Cache and Iron counties.
Morgan, meanwhile, said Count My Vote believes it will qualify for the ballot easily.
“This kind of monkey business needs to stop,” he said. “They need to knock it off and let the voters decide this issue once and for all.”
That is similar to what Gov. Gary Herbert said last week when he heard of efforts to remove names from petitions. “Let’s have the vote. Let’s have the debate,” he said. “I think it’s good to have the people’s voice heard.”
Bateman said he is working hard against Count My Vote because he believes it would “kill the caucus-convention system,” and essentially make signature collecting the only practical path for candidates seeking to get on the primary election ballot.