Coronavirus pandemic has effectively shut down signature gathering for candidates

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Candidates for governor are finding it difficult to adapt their signature-gathering efforts in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. 

Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert used an executive order to loosen some of the requirements for candidates who gather signatures, allowing for voters to sign a petition remotely and either mail or email the signature page back to the campaign.

Already, former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign has begun emailing and texting voters, asking them to sign his petition to get on the ballot. Before Gov. Herbert’s directive on Friday asking Utahns to stay at home to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, Huntsman’s campaign was also going to collect signatures in person from those who requested a visit.

Huntsman is behind the political 8-ball a bit as he is still more than 11,000 signatures away from qualifying for the ballot with an April 13 deadline for submitting 28,000 valid names looming.

Over the weekend Republican candidate Jeff Burningham attempted to restart his signature-gathering efforts to qualify for the primary ballot but found the new rules too difficult to be feasible. 

“Our trial run showed that it wouldn’t work,” said campaign spokesperson Michael Jolley. 

Burningham’s campaign put together an email and text messaging campaign as well as a call center to contact supporters in short order. Jolley says they initially targeted about 60,000 supporters, but quickly found the effort would not be worth the payoff. Instead, Burningham will continue to focus his efforts on contacting Republican state delegates to win their support.

Burningham suspended his in-person signature-gathering efforts earlier this month because of the coronavirus outbreak and challenged other candidates to abandon signatures as well.

Republican Jan Garbett’s campaign was continuing their door-to-door petition efforts until Gov. Herbert issued his stay at home directive on Friday.

For about a week, Garbett’s campaign has been sending supporters a signature page in the mail, asking them to sign and return it to the campaign as a sort of trial run for petitions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We didn’t get much of a response there,” said David Garbett. “Maybe a handful of responses.”

Attacking the signature-gathering problem that way can be expensive. Garbett says sending out signature sheets to supporters in the mail would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 per mailer, once you factor in printing and mailing costs. Garbett’s campaign says they would need to contact approximately 60,000 voters to get a return rate high enough to qualify for the ballot, which would carry an ultimate price tag of $180,000.

Statewide candidates have until the end of business on April 13 to submit their signatures for validation, and the signatures must be validated or thrown out by the state by April 24, which is the day before the Republican state convention.

So far, Thomas Wright and Spencer Cox are the only Republican candidates for governor to have qualified for the ballot via signatures.