Gubernatorial candidates press Utah governor to change election rules amid coronavirus pandemic

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 31, 2020, file photo the Utah governor candidates are pictured. From left, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton, Jon Huntsman, Thomas Wright, Greg Hughes and Spencer Cox pose for a group photo with Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts, center after a debate at the 2020 Silicon Slopes Tech Summit convention, at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Gubernatorial hopeful Jon Huntsman is calling on the sitting governor to protect candidates’ path to the primary ballot as the coronavirus limits their ability to campaign.

With the pandemic upending the election cycle, Huntsman said state leaders must “change how we proceed to make sure it’s a fair & honest primary." He specifically suggested that the state let candidates collect voter signatures electronically as they seek to earn a place on the ballot.

“In a national emergency, it’s imperative that the governors office preserves our democracy,” Huntsman, Utah’s former governor, wrote Monday on Twitter.

Signature-gathering candidates in the race must submit 28,000 valid names to the state to qualify for the ballot. While Huntsman has already handed in about 37,000 signatures, he hasn’t yet met this benchmark because state officials have rejected many of the names during the validation process, said Lisa Roskelley, his campaign manager.

Candidates want to be good citizens and are worried about putting people at risk by circulating paper petitions and asking volunteers to gather signatures, she said. But they’re also concerned about letting COVID-19 stall the democratic process, she added.

“We’re going to extreme measures to ensure that we’re continuing to keep people safe, but we also need to get more signatures,” Roskelley said. “I want to make sure people don’t lose their right to be engaged in this process amid a public health crisis.”

Huntsman’s campaign is the second to ask Utah leaders to override the state’s signature-gathering rules in light of the pandemic. On Monday, Republican candidate Jan Garbett sent Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — her opponent in the gubernatorial primary — a letter urging action.

"Immediate steps must be taken to ensure that candidates, such as Jan, are not unconstitutionally faced with the choice of ending their campaign or placing the public at risk,” stated the letter, sent by Garbett’s legal counsel. “Fortunately, there are certain steps that can be taken by your offices to address this constitutional crisis.”

The letter argues that Cox’s office, which oversees elections, could adjust the deadline for submitting signatures. Alternatively, Herbert could issue an order permitting electronic gathering or declaring that any official candidate who filed an intent to collect signatures will appear on the primary ballot.

On Monday evening, a spokeswoman for Herbert said his office is looking into these issues but had no comment beyond that.

Allowing electronic signature-gathering or extending the submission deadline — which is April 11 for Republicans — would require changes to state law, Justin Lee, the Utah elections director, has said. Although the current state of emergency would empower Cox as lieutenant governor to change voting deadlines or early voting locations, nothing in the law gives him the ability to unilaterally change the signature-collection process, Lee said.

To do so, the Legislature would have to convene in a special session to amend the law, he said. And aside from the legal obstacles, Lee said there are also practical challenges to making these allowances, since the elections office doesn’t currently have the capability of verifying electronic signatures and would need months to acquire it.

However, Garbett points to governors who have taken drastic steps to maintain election participation and protect voters during the pandemic. A number of states, including Texas, Indiana and Missouri, have postponed elections altogether.

She and Roskelley both argued the governor could alter the rules for signature gathering by executive order — as he did earlier this month when he suspended a requirement for individuals to declare their candidacy in person at the elections office. Under Herbert’s executive order, prospective candidates could make the declaration by proxy.

Garbett’s letter concludes by asking Herbert and Cox to respond to the campaign by noon Wednesday. In a Monday evening phone interview, Garbett said she is exploring legal action if the state does not respond in a satisfactory manner.

“Democracy demands participation,” Garbett said.

So far, former Utah GOP chairman Thomas Wright is the only gubernatorial candidate who has reached the 28,000-signature threshold and qualified for the ballot. However, Cox’s campaign representatives say he has submitted enough names and is waiting on the elections office to validate them. A spokeswoman for his campaign declined to comment on the requests made by Huntsman and Garbett.

Other primary candidates in the governor’s race — Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, Provo businessman Jeff Burningham and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes — are hoping to land a spot on the ballot by earning enough support from fellow Republicans during the upcoming party convention.

The coronavirus has also forced changes to the party caucus-convention system, with Republicans planning an online state convention and voting.

Editor’s note: Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, Tribune owner and publisher.