‘I’m not a conspiracy theorist’: Phil Lyman’s long shot strategy to overturn Gov. Cox’s GOP primary win

A week after the 2024 primary election polls closes, Spencer Cox has a commanding lead over Lyman in Utah’s gubernatorial primary election, according to unofficial returns.

Instead of accepting defeat in the 2024 Republican gubernatorial primary election, Phil Lyman seems to be hanging his fading chances of wresting the party nomination away from Spencer Cox on a long shot allegation that the signatures Cox used to qualify for the ballot may not be legitimate.

Lyman, a state lawmaker, currently trails Cox by approximately 38,000 votes a week after election day. Lyman won the delegate vote at April’s Republican Party nominating convention.

Lyman has continued to reject the reality of his loss, blaming the media and insinuating that the vote-tabulating machines were somehow rigged against him.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m really not,” Lyman said during a Monday evening Zoom call with members of the far-right group Utah Citizens for the Constitution. Lyman is on the organization’s board of directors.

During that call, Lyman suggested without evidence that clandestine government agents were working to make election deniers look like reality-challenged kooks.

“There’s no shortage of genuine conspiracy theorists out there, and some of them that I think are actually agents in this space that are trying to make people look crazy, who question elections. I think the FBI and CIA are very active in that space,” Lyman said. “You’re always trying to figure out who you can trust and who you can rely on.”

[READ: Why Lt. Gov. Henderson told Utah’s county clerks that election returns are not a public record]

While Lyman says he won’t acknowledge his loss until he’s satisfied that the results were legitimate, his campaign hopes their theory will ultimately lead to him supplanting Cox as the Republican gubernatorial nominee in November.

The labyrinthine plan involves: the signature-gathering company Cox used to qualify for the ballot, state Sen. Don Ipson, Republican attorney general nominee Derek Brown, and an alleged criminal investigation.

Inside Lyman’s theory

Utah voter registration information, including name, address, age and voting history, are publicly available by default. However, Utahns can choose to make that information private, prohibiting disclosure of the information to everyone except for political parties and candidates, with includes restrictions on how that information can be used. Some voters, including domestic violence victims, law enforcement officers, military members or other high-profile people, can ask to have their information withheld from being made public under any circumstances.

In mid-May, former Salt Lake City School Board member Michael Clara submitted an open records request using Utah’s Government Records Access Management ACT (GRAMA) to access the signature gathering forms for Ipson’s reelection effort. Ipson failed to submit enough valid signatures to qualify for the primary election automatically but was able to advance to the primary against Chad Bennion through the GOP convention. Ipson currently leads Bennion by 459 votes, a little more than two percentage points.

According to documents provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, the Washington County Clerk told Clara he would allow him to inspect the records in their office, including those marked as private. However, he could not remove them or make a copy.

When Clara attempted to set up a time to view the records, the Washington County attorney stepped in to deny Clara access to the signature packets because signatures on political petitions are protected records and not subject to open records law, and the signatures Ipson submitted were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

The Washington County attorney says the investigation into the signatures submitted by Ipson does not involve Gathering.

Clara has appealed that denial and the State Records Committee will hear an appeal on July 18.

Because Ipson and Cox hired the same signature-collecting company, Gathering, the Lyman campaign suggests there may also be irregularities with Cox’s petitions. Shortly before election day, Lyman’s campaign submitted an open records request to obtain the signature petition forms for Cox. They also asked for the signature packets submitted by Republican attorney general candidate Derek Brown and U.S. Senate candidate Brad Wilson, who also used Gathering to collect signatures and qualify for the ballot.

Lyman’s campaign also attempted to hire Gathering to collect signatures on their behalf but abandoned that effort.

Lyman’s request was denied because signatures are not subject to open records law. They were offered a list of signatories minus private and withheld records or the opportunity to view the packets in person as an alternative.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lyman’s campaign has not yet appealed that denial. However, they have intervened in Clara’s appeal and will be part of the hearing on the 18th. Lyman is urging his supporters to attend the hearing en masse as a show of support and force.

Should they succeed in prying those signatures free, Lyman hopes they will show Cox qualified for the primary illegitimately, which they hope would disqualify the incumbent Republican.

Cox campaign spokesperson Matt Lusty said he’s confident Lyman’s efforts to cast doubt on his loss would not be effective.

“Phil has taken his case to court once already during the election process, when a judge ruled that he was wrong. The governor has no doubt that Phil will be met with a similar outcome with whatever lawsuits he may choose to bring forward in the future. Most importantly, Utah Republican voters rejected his candidacy in favor of a governor who has an optimistic and conservative vision for Utah’s future,” Lusty said in a text message.

Lyman did not respond to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune

Privacy of voters’ information

Lyman’s campaign argues that transparency surrounding the signature-gathering process is paramount. But, releasing signatures so they could be scrutinized could lead to a privacy nightmare for those voters, as is what happened during the independent audit of the 2020 election results in Arizona.

Motivated by widespread conspiracy theories casting doubt on Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, Republicans in the Arizona Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a small cyber security firm in Florida, to audit the election, even though the company had no audit experience. The group was given access to sensitive voter data, including the signatures on mail-in ballots.

Several issues surrounding the security of the data and privacy arose soon thereafter.

At one point during the audit, a contractor hired by the Arizona Senate took the election data from one Arizona county to a “secure lab,” which appeared to be a log cabin in the Montana woods, azcentral reported. It was unclear what security measures were in place to protect the data. The review was conducted with no oversight from state or county officials.

In 2023, Jordan Conradson, a writer for the far-right website The Gateway Pundit, posted a series of articles that included signatures from ballots from in the audit.

After she lost the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial race, Republican Kari Lake posted 16 voter signatures on social media to support her claim that the election was somehow fraudulent, according to 12News KPNX. Those signatures came from the data used in the Cyber Ninja audit. According to Arizona election officials, it is illegal to post those signatures publicly.

Lyman did not respond to questions about what safeguards his campaign would implement should they gain access to the personal information of voters who signed petitions. He also did not respond when asked if his campaign intended to turn that information over to outside organizations or individuals not part of his campaign.

Lyman is a close ally of two of Utah’s most prominent election deniers, Jenn Orten and Sophie Anderson, known online as “The Two Red Pills.” He’s also spoken at events focused on election fraud conspiracies, including a Colorado event headlined by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell.

In 2021, Lyman and former Rep. Steve Christiansen attempted to gain access to the entire state voter registration database, including private and withheld records. That request came after Christiansen traveled to Arizona to witness the Cyber Ninja audit. He and Lyman also attended Lindell’s cyber symposium in South Dakota.

Lyman’s running mate, Natalie Clawson, was one of the leaders of the unsuccessful Secure Vote Utah ballot initiative, which sought to scrap the state’s vote-by-mail system.

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