Borrowing a tactic used by opponents of medical marijuana, Keep My Voice and the Constitution Party of Utah sued Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday to impede an initiative focused on how candidates gain a spot on the ballot.
The lawsuit accuses Cox — who oversees elections in Utah — of having a personal and partisan conflict of interest toward the Count My Vote initiative, improperly advocating for it, and failing to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of his office.
The plaintiffs also take issue with the running signature totals earlier released by the state elections office, claiming the law requires a full count of petition signatures and signature-removal requests before the public release.
“Lt. Gov. Cox has acted with apparent and actual bias in favor of the CMV Initiative,” the lawsuit states, ”and in direct interference with the rights of plaintiffs and all other members of the Utah electorate who are opposed to the CMV Initiative.“
Count My Vote sponsored the ballot initiative to ratify through public vote a 2014 law allowing candidates to qualify for the primary ballot through either the traditional caucus-convention system or by collecting voter signatures.
It would include some changes to reduce how many signatures are required for a candidate to appear on the ballot
Before that law, the caucus-convention system was the sole route. The Utah Republican Party has sued to overturn the new law, contending it infringes on the party’s rights to choose nominees as it likes. Count My Vote contends it give voters more choice.
Four ballot initiatives have submitted signatures to the state elections office and are currently awaiting certification. State law requires Cox to verify or deny that certification by June 1 based on the ability of initiatives to secure minimum signature requirements in at least 26 of Utah’s 29 Senate districts.
The lawsuit asks the court to compel Cox to recuse himself and to extend the deadline for signature-removal requests until June 1.
Rich McKeown, executive co-chairman of Count My Vote, complained the new lawsuit criticizes the lieutenant governor’s office before seeing its results — and is part of an ongoing effort to stop voters from deciding how Utah elections should be conducted.
“The whole objective here is to allow all Utahns to vote and determine the mechanics behind how people get on the ballot. All we have ever wanted is for people to vote up or down on it,” he said.
MeKeown complained about the lawsuit, saying, “I don’t know how you anticipate error on this until you’ve determined what they’ve done” and the counting is ongoing.
He added that laws determining how initiatives qualify for the ballot are “really, really difficult to implement,” including subjective decisions about whether every signature — or letters asking that they be removed — is valid.
“People may have all sorts of problems at the conclusion of it. I don’t doubt there will be litigation on some of the initiatives regardless of the results,” McKeown said.
Justin Lee, state elections director for Cox, declined comment about the lawsuit.
He said his office is still in the process of validating letters and forms seeking removal of signatures from petitions. He said once that is completed, they will be tallied — and that number will be subtracted from totals of signatures verified by the counties.
Lee said the lieutenant governor must determine which initiatives qualify for the ballot by next Friday.