Elections Office Deals With SB54 Questions

(See this letter to political parties from Mark Thomas, Chief Deputy/Director of Elections.)

Now that county and state delegates have been chosen in the Utah Republican and Democratic parties, the intrigue of April conventions begins in earnest.

And there are questions put before the Utah Elections Office (UEA) – the arbiter of SB54 rules – yet to be answered.

A few:

— Will candidates who take only the signature gathering route to a party’s primary election be considered by their delegates – whether they want to be or not?

— Were 15 candidates, including GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, properly allowed to pick their route to the ballot after the candidate filing deadline of March 17?

— Has the signature gathering process been fairly run and overseen?

Late Monday, the campaign of GOP gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Johnson asked UtahPolicy to look into an amended candidate filing by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

Mark Thomas, deputy to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah Elections Office director tells UtahPolicy that Herbert – along with 14 other federal and state candidates – was asked by the UEA to amend their officially filing document after elections officials discovered that the candidates had failed to check a box on their filing forms.

A new, SB54-required, section of the form asks the candidate to pick between three routes to the party primary – signature gathering alone, caucus/convention route alone, or both routes at the same time.

Herbert had forgotten to check any of the boxes, as had 14 other candidates who filed in the Utah Election Office or with a county clerk.

Johnson’s campaign noticed. And asked UtahPolicy whether Thomas allowing Herbert to amend his form was legal.

It is, Thomas notes.

Herbert, of course, had already filed in early January to gather signatures. SB54 requires 28,000 signatures for the office of governor from registered Republican voters.

Herbert has 28,005 signatures and has been certified to the GOP primary ballot in June.

But if Herbert had not amended his filing form, and checked the BOTH box – meaning he’s collecting signatures AND will appear before the state GOP convention, Johnson may have been able to claim that Herbert could not be voted on in convention.

With Herbert out of the convention, almost assuredly Johnson would have gotten more than 40 percent of the delegate vote and thus under party rules would have advanced to the primary.

Or even more interestingly, without Herbert on the party convention ballot, Johnson might have gotten 60 percent of the vote – and officially been the convention’s choice of gubernatorial nominee, which could help Johnson’s primary campaign against the governor.

Or if a federal judge rules – in a long-standing state Republican Party challenge to SB54 – that signature-gathering candidates can’t go on the GOP ballot, but must advance only through a delegate convention vote, well, Herbert could have been in a real political pickle.

With the amended candidate filing form, Herbert – and any of the other 14 candidates who amend their filing forms within the allotted 48 hours of notification – should be just fine.

But the Herbert amended form brings up another question – one that Thomas doesn’t yet have an answer for.

A few signature-gathering candidates specifically DON’T want to go before their party’s delegates.

They checked the signature-only box on their filing form.

But can the Republican Party – either in a county convention, for a legislator whose district is wholly within one county, or in the state convention for multi-county districts – still put the candidate on the convention ballot, to be voted on by delegates?

That delegate vote wouldn’t be binding, true.

So, why would a party want to do this, especially since the delegates couldn’t eliminate a signature-certified candidate in convention?

There could be several reasons – including legal coverage should a judge rule the signature candidate ineligible.

Then a signature candidate who didn’t get 40 percent of the delegate vote could be out of the race – and the caucus/convention route determinative.

Or party bosses may want to embarrass a signature candidate. It would be likely delegates may hold a grudge against a candidate who didn’t want his fate decided by delegates.

And so delegates could give that signature candidate a bad convention vote – to be used by his convention-only opponent in the upcoming primary campaign.

Can the party put a signature candidate on the convention ballot?

“We don’t have an answer for that,” said Thomas. “We are looking at all these (new SB54) issues.”

Finally, here is the Salt Lake Tribune story on Johnson’s petition-gathering complaints lodged against Herbert’s campaign – which are separate from Johnson’s question about Herbert’s amended filing form.

Thomas says it may seem a bit odd that his office – overseen by Lt. Gov. Cox – must rule on issues about the Herbert/Cox candidacy.

But that’s the law. And it is no different than a county clerk’s office having to deal with campaign issues involving that very county clerk, who also stands for office.

Says Thomas: “Our office’s reputation for fairness, and following election law, proceeds us. Our office has done a good job” over the years.

If Johnson’s campaign doesn’t like the fact that the Election Office will not itself investigate claims of faulty petition gathering by the Herbert campaign – but turns those issues over to the Attorney General’s Office – well, that is the process, says Thomas.

“This is all about us being careful and fair,” said Thomas.