Utah candidates can now collect signatures without risking spread of coronavirus

(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.

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Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday issued an executive order allowing political campaigns to collect voter signatures without making in-person contact after candidates and residents alike had complained about the risks of canvassing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order will enable campaigns to keep gathering the signatures they need to earn a place on the primary ballot without having to engage in face-to-face interactions that could spread the virus. It does so by suspending a provision in state election law requiring that canvassers witness each signature and by letting candidates send and receive petition pages electronically.

Voters still must print out the page and sign in writing but can do so and then return an email image to the campaign.

“By easing certain requirements of the signature gathering process, but requiring that signatures be verified by the state after submission, this order strikes the appropriate balance in preserving a signature gathering path to the ballot, even as Utahns follow orders and recommendations regarding social distancing,” Herbert said in a prepared statement.

Earlier this week, the campaign of governor candidate Jan Garbett sent Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox a letter through her attorneys, asking them to relax the state’s signature guidelines in light of the unfolding public health crisis. She implored Herbert to let candidates collect the names electronically or change the deadline for meeting the 28,000-signature threshold to land on the ballot.

Cox, himself a candidate in the governor’s race, did not participate in the deliberations leading to Thursday’s order, according to a news release.

Garbett’s campaign was not alone in asking the state to intervene so the pandemic doesn’t block candidates from the primary election.

The NAACP’s Salt Lake branch has advocated for eliminating signature-gathering entirely and letting all filed candidates appear on the primary ballot this year.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who’s struggling to gather enough signatures to meet the ballot requirement, has also called on the state to make allowances in light of the pandemic. Like Garbett, Huntsman’s campaign has suggested pushing back the signature deadline or allowing candidates to gather signatures electronically.

Lisa Roskelley, campaign manager for Huntsman, praised Herbert’s decision to let voters send in signatures by email or fax.

“I think this is a great step forward,” she said. “It does address the public health concerns we had, with the balance of still being able to get access to the ballot through the signatures that we still needed.”

So far, former Utah Republican Party chairman Thomas Wright and Cox are the only gubernatorial candidates who have qualified for the ballot.

State officials have largely finished reviewing the signatures submitted to date by Huntsman, who is still about 11,500 names shy of guaranteeing his place in the Republican primary. While Huntsman turned in more than 36,000 names, the elections office has tossed out about 54% of them because the signatory wasn’t registered as a Republican or had already endorsed another gubernatorial candidate’s petition, among other reasons.

By comparison, Wright and Cox had signature rejection rates of 17% and 28%, respectively.

Roskelley said the Huntsman campaign has been “very surprised by the high rate of rejection” and intends to investigate why so many signatures didn’t pass muster.

Cox’s dual roles as a candidate and the state’s chief elections officer have drawn increased scrutiny, as his office considers requests for relief from his rivals in the governor’s race. The Deseret News on Thursday opined that the lieutenant governor should “publicly recuse himself” from decisions in the primary elections, although the editorial was later adjusted to point out that Cox already has appointed a neutral party to review controversies that might affect his campaign.

That arbiter, former Lt. Gov. Gayle F. McKeachnie, was consulted as the elections office deliberated over Garbett’s request, according to Justin Lee, the state’s elections director. Reached by phone, McKeachnie confirmed that he had participated in a number of conference calls about the signature issue, in conjunction with state elections staff and representatives from the Attorney General’s Office. Cox was not part of those conversations, he said.

Cox’s campaign spokeswoman said the lieutenant governor had recused himself from dealing with the matter and appreciated McKeachnie’s input to “assure Utahns of a fair and unbiased elections process.”

But the outcome failed to satisfy the campaign of Provo businessman Jeff Burningham, who said the governor’s executive order came too late.

“The people of Utah fully deserve the opportunity to choose their next governor,” Burningham said in a prepared statement. “Everything in our world has changed drastically over the last two weeks and unfortunately Governor Herbert’s actions are too slow and don’t do enough to ensure that the people’s voice will be made known in this critical election for our state."

Burningham’s campaign suspended its canvassing activity a couple weeks ago and has since focused on the state’s alternative pathway onto the ballot — through the party nominating convention.

Don Guymon, a member of the Republican state central committee, said Herbert is setting a “dangerous precedent” by issuing an order that, he believes, infringes on the Legislature’s authority. He also argues candidates had plenty of time to collect signatures before the coronavirus shut down interpersonal interaction.

“They knew the rules. They signed up to play by those rules,” he said. “And now they’re asking for the rules to be changed in the middle of the game.”

On Wednesday, the Utah Democratic Party asked candidates across the state to stop signature gathering after hearing from numerous voters frustrated that a canvasser had showed up at their door. None of the complaints was about a Democratic campaign, according to a news release.

Jeff Merchant, party chairman, said he’s already reached out to Democrats currently running for office in Utah and that they’d agreed not to circulate petitions. He encouraged Republicans to take the same step, while acknowledging it would be a painful decision for candidates in hotly contested races.

“I know that that’s tough,” he said. “But the reality is that we are talking about an extremely serious, extremely fatal disease for some people. And I think we have a social and moral responsibility to do everything in our power not to spread COVID-19.”

But the election disruption caused by the disease does expose flaws in Utah’s hybrid system for getting to the ballot, said Merchant, who thinks lawmakers should look at ranked choice primary voting or doing away with the caucus-convention system altogether.

Asked whether signature-gathering should stop, the Utah Republican Party released a statement saying it encouraged candidates to follow the governor’s health guidelines and trusted “that they will adjust their campaign strategies in a way that carefully complies with his recommendations.”

State GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he’s looking forward to the party’s online nominating convention on April 25.

“The Republican convention will be a viable method for all of our candidates to access the ballot, and we encourage them all to participate in that process and to continue engaging with the delegates," Brown said in a prepared statement.

As far as whether the state should step in to change rules on signature gathering, he warned that such a move could backfire.

“Any time you change the rules of an election in the middle of the election, you will inevitably have unanticipated consequences, and risk creating more problems than you are solving,” Brown said in a prepared statement.

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