Utah Capitol 09

Although Gov. Gary Herbert has asked Utahns to limit contact during the coronavirus pandemic, several political campaigns are still working to get enough signatures to secure a spot on the June primary ballot. Despite the guidelines to stop the spread of the virus, Herbert’s office says they don’t have any plans at present to modify the number of signatures candidates are required to secure.

Statewide and congressional candidates along with legislative races that encompass more than one county have until April 10 to meet the signature thresholds set by the 2014 SB54 compromise. Candidates who are vying for a spot on the primary ballot for legislative seats contained in a single county have until April 3 to meet the requirements. For a statewide race, the number of signatures needed is 28,000. Congressional seats need 7,000, while the Utah State Senate requires 2,000 signatures, and the Utah House’s level is 1,000.

Gov. Herbert has already used his executive power during the COVID-19 outbreak to change one election-related statute, allowing candidates to file for office by proxy instead of in person. 

However, Herbert does not seem inclined to make another concession about signature-gathering requirements to reduce contact between candidates and voters. The United Utah Party along with several candidates has asked the governor to either push back the election season by a month, giving candidates more time to gather signatures or even take executive action to drop the required total for inclusion on the ballot.

“At this point, the Governor has not decided to suspend additional election statutes,” said spokesperson Brooke Scheffler in response to a question from UtahPolicy.com. “As circumstances are rapidly changing, the Governor will continue to evaluate all such requests.”

Governor Herbert’s general counsel says he does have the authority to suspend enforcement of statutes under certain circumstances in a state of emergency. However, the governor does not have the authority to create new law, so he must be very careful that his executive actions do not have unintended consequences.

What Herbert is being asked to do is not out of the ordinary. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order dropping the number of signatures needed to appear on that state’s ballot to just 30% of what is normally needed. New York’s petition requirements are far what Utah requires.

Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham has made signature-gathering a campaign issue, announcing that he was abandoning the effort to take the signature path to the ballot and calling on his Republican rivals to stop as well in order to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 among the populace. 

As of publication, only Republican Thomas Wright had collected enough signatures to qualify for the June gubernatorial primary. Current Lt. Governor Spencer Cox was about 1,700 signatures short, while former Gov. Jon Huntsman still needed approximately 13,000 verified signatures to qualify for the ballot. Jan Garbett’s campaign is currently attempting to gather signatures, while Greg Hughes and Aimee Winder Newton are both focusing on the convention path only. 

On Monday, Jon Huntsman took to Twitter to suggest allowing electronic signature gathering.

“Every Utah citizen should be concerned about ballot access. When everything has been upended with #COVID-19, we too need to change how we proceed to make sure it’s a fair & honest primary. In a national emergency, it’s imperative that the governors (sic) office preserves our democracy. Might I suggest something revolutionary...like, I don’t know, electronic signatures?” he tweeted.

Huntsman campaign spokesperson Lisa Roskelley said they want to make sure that voters do not lose their voice during the current emergency.

“We believe the Governor’s office will see this as an essential element of government that needs to be addressed, like many of the others he’s already taken action on. He demonstrated his willingness to address the elections statute with an executive order earlier this month, and trust he can take similar action on this element,” said Roskelley in an email.

UtahPolicy.com has been told that several candidates who have chosen the signature path are considering filing a lawsuit seeking relief in the wake of the current public health emergency. They contend that state law provides for two paths to the ballot and the current public health situation has effectively eliminated one of those paths unexpectedly. 

One legal adviser to several of those candidates spoke anonymously on background as they were not authorized to speak publicly for the campaigns.

“Everything has changed in the last week and a half. Nobody wants to go around gathering signatures in this environment,” they said. “We don’t want to be placing Utahns at risk by going door-to-door to gather signatures.”

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have canceled their neighborhood caucuses and are moving their state conventions online due to the coronavirus outbreak.

UtahPolicy.com is told that the decision whether to bring suit will be made sometime this week.