Republican gubernatorial candidate Jan Garbett gets a second shot at the primary ballot

Utah businesswoman Jan Garbett has a second chance to appear on the Republican primary ballot for governor this June, after a judge Monday ordered a lowering in the threshold for the number of signatures she’d need in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If enough of the 21,000 or so signatures she attempted to submit to the lieutenant governor’s office earlier this month are verified, that would turn the primary race into a five-way contest among Republicans. And it would make Garbett the first woman representing a major party to appear on a ballot for governor in Utah history.

But it’s far from a sure thing that she’ll meet the new 19,040 signature threshold, which leaves her only a slim margin for rejected ballots. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who squeaked in with his requisite signatures just in time for the deadline, submitted 60,000 signatures from Utah voters — and more than 20,000 of them were rejected.

Daniel Friend, Garbett’s campaign spokesman, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling Tuesday morning, saying that the team was “going to wait and see what the final outcome is from the elections office,” which will soon begin the process of verifying the signatures.

“We are hoping for the best,” he added.

Justin Lee, director of elections in the state lieutenant governor’s office, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday that the team there will be working on a quick timeline to get Garbett’s signatures verified by May 6 at the latest.

In her lawsuit and during oral arguments on Monday, Garbett’s attorneys argued that if not for the “unprecedented limitations” the state imposed in response to the coronavirus — including a stay-at-home directive and prohibitions on large gatherings, where candidates are typically able to gather a large number of signatures — she would have met the signature threshold.

The state, in its response, contended that she was not entitled to be on the ballot, since gathering signatures was one of only two ways to get her name before voters in the Republican primary. She also had the constitutional right and ability to seek her party’s nomination through the state convention process, the attorneys noted.

Garbett, co-founder of Garbett Homes, says in her lawsuit that she had decided not to seek the convention route to the ballot, forecasting that a “Trump-skeptic candidate had little chance of qualifying for the primary through a Republican convention.” Party insiders tend to be more conservative than the population at large.

While she was the only one of seven candidates not to seek the convention route, Garbett wasn’t the sole candidate to struggle to collect signatures in time for the deadline to hand them in amid the coronavirus outbreak, the state noted.

The attorneys pointed to Huntsman’s campaign, which gathered many of its needed signatures during the outbreak and after Gov. Gary Herbert signed an executive order in late March suspending a provision in state election law requiring that canvassers witness each signature and allowing candidates to send and receive petition pages electronically.

That Huntsman and two other Republican candidates succeeding in gathering sufficient signatures “weighs in favor of finding that the burden” placed on candidates as a result of the pandemic “is less than severe,” the state argued.

After hearing from both sides, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled from the bench Monday that Garbett had lost about 32% of the days she otherwise could have gathered signatures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore decided to lower her signature threshold by the same amount, down from 28,000.

The ruling is limited in scope, applying only to Garbett and only to the 2020 gubernatorial race.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (who is named in the lawsuit along with Herbert) and Thomas Wright, a former Utah Republican Party chairman, both met the 28,000-signature threshold to qualify for the ballot. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes will also appear on the ballot after coming in second after Cox at Saturday’s Utah Republican Party convention.

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.