A ballot initiative to end Utah’s vote-by-mail system appears to fall short of support. Here’s why organizers blame election officials.

Secure the Vote has until Feb. 15 to submit nearly 138,000 signatures, or their initiative will not make it to November’s ballot.

Backers of a proposed ballot initiative to end Utah’s use of vote-by-mail say they will file a suit in federal court because the state delayed their efforts to gather signatures to secure a spot on the ballot.

In a video posted online Thursday, Secure Vote Utah’s Lew Moore said they’d asked Utah election officials to extend the deadline but were rebuffed.

“We believe they violated the law and delayed us being able to start the gathering of signature. We made this request respectfully, and they turned us down. We are intending by tomorrow [Feb. 11] to file an emergency injunction in federal court, so we have our rights,” Moore alleged.

According to the response from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office shared with the Tribune, “Secure the Vote” organizers asked for a 23-day extension of the deadline, as well as a 30% reduction in the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Initiative backers claimed the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to gather signatures. They pointed to Republican gubernatorial candidate Jan Garbett’s 2020 lawsuit against Utah that claimed state-imposed limitations in response to the coronavirus impacted her ability to meet the signature requirement to qualify for the primary ballot. A federal judge ruled she lost about 32% of the available days and reduced the number of signatures she needed by the same amount. She still failed to qualify for the primary.

Natalie Clawson, who is listed as one of the backers who filed the request for more time, has been a vocal opponent of masks and other COVID-19 restrictions. In August of 2021, she gave public comment to the Utah County Commission opposing mask wearing for children in schools.

“Although we acknowledge the global pandemic has made everything more difficult and inconvenient, the current situation in winter 2021-22 and the governmental response is much different than it was in 2020. Today there is no continuing gubernatorial declaration of emergency,” the response letter read.

Moore and others with Secure Vote Utah did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit seems to be an admission they won’t meet the Feb. 15 deadline for submitting nearly 138,000 signatures to get the proposal on November’s ballot. Organizers turned in their first raft of signatures earlier this week. As of Friday afternoon, initiative backers had submitted just 2,361 valid signatures, which is just under 2% of the total needed.

A post circulating on the secure Telegram messaging app raised the alarm about the lack of signatures in Davis County and how that will harm their efforts to get lawmakers to pass election-related legislation.

“Davis County is not going to make it. We are going to be way short, and even though we won’t make it unless a miracle amount of volunteers show up and finish this weekend, every signature sends a message to the Legislature,” the post read.

The “Secure the Vote” initiative seeks to replace Utah’s vote-by-mail system with same-day, in-person balloting at neighborhood voting locations, and nearly all absentee balloting would be eliminated.

The initiative’s organizers submitted their proposal to the state elections office on Nov. 30 of last year. State law details several steps that organizers must take before collecting signatures.

Once elections officials accept the proposal, it’s forwarded to the legislative fiscal analyst to determine what, if any, impact the proposed law will have on Utah’s budget. They have 25 days to complete that examination. The Secure Vote Utah analysis was conducted on Dec. 23 and within the timeframe.

Before organizers can gather signatures, the last step is holding seven public meetings on the initiative around the state. The meetings for this proposal all took place on Jan. 4. Organizers began gathering signatures the following day.

If organizers fail in their quest for extra time to submit signatures or cannot get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, Utah law will block them from resubmitting a similar initiative for two years.

It’s not clear whether the state election’s office even can give organizers more time to submit signatures. The Feb. 15 deadline is set in state law. Utah election officials did not respond to a request for comment.