Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the third gubernatorial candidate to earn a place on the Republican primary ballot after gathering the 28,000 signatures he needed to make the cut.
Huntsman’s campaign has been hustling to collect signatures before Monday’s deadline for submitting them to state officials. On Monday, the elections office confirmed he’d met the threshold to appear on the June primary ballot alongside at least two opponents, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
“The response by the people of Utah these last few weeks has been incredibly heartening and motivating,” Abby Huntsman, Huntsman’s daughter and campaign spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “Our goal will always be to bring as many people into the process as possible. We look forward to continuing that effort into the primary and beyond.”
Other candidates to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert could land on the ballot by winning support from fellow party members at nominating conventions slated for April 25. GOP hopefuls include venture capitalist Jeff Burningham, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, former House Speaker Greg Hughes and businesswoman Jan Garbett.
The coronavirus outbreak was a complicating factor in candidates’ efforts to collect signatures, since the process generally requires canvassers to go door to door and pass around physical petition packets. To avoid spreading the virus, Burningham at one point suspended his signature-gathering efforts, and Garbett has urged the state to relax the election requirements in light of the pandemic.
Last month, Herbert issued an executive order allowing candidates to collect signatures electronically. The order permitted people to print out a copy of the petition page, sign it and then scan it to send back to the campaigns.
These changes, however, didn’t go far enough for Garbett, who noted that the process is still unwieldy, especially because many people don’t have printers. Garbett has suggested lowering the signature requirement or extending the deadline and says she’s exploring legal action over what she believes is the state’s failure to safeguard the democratic process.
The Garbett campaign did plan to turn in signatures Monday, although a spokesman said he wasn’t sure of the final number. The signature-gathering process is her only path onto the ballot, since she has decided not to seek nomination at the party convention.
Monday evening, state elections officials said Garbett attempted to hand in about 21,000 signatures. But because her submission failed to meet the 28,000-signature threshold, the office rejected it, said Justin Lee, the state’s elections director.
Two Democratic candidates — Zachary Moses and Chris Peterson — initially planned to collect signatures but called off their efforts because of COVID-19. Moses said the governor’s concessions came too late to help him.
“The olive branch the governor offered was one that was good enough to get people who hadn’t suspended signature gathering over the threshold,” he said. “But it wasn’t really meant to equalize that playing field.”
For Moses and Peterson, the only way to make a primary showing is by earning enough support from party insiders during the Democratic convention.
Despite the challenges created by the pandemic, the Huntsman campaign gathered more than 60,000 signatures from Utah voters, Abby Huntsman said. However, state elections officials rejected more than 20,000 of those names because the signatory wasn’t a registered voter, wasn’t on file as a Republican or had already endorsed another candidate’s petition, among other reasons.
Because so many signatures were tossed out, Huntsman was still a few thousand names short on Friday, although he quickly closed the gap Monday.
“We play by the rules and finish by the rules," Abby Huntsman said, “even if they are in desperate need of reform.”
Also Monday, former KSL radio personality Jay McFarland earned a spot on the Republican primary ballot in his bid to challenge Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams for Utah’s 4th Congressional District. Republicans Trent Christensen and Burgess Owens already had qualified for the ballot with signatures.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.