SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday candidates will now be able to gather signatures for a place on the June primary election ballot by having voters print off an online form and return it, eliminating the need for campaigns to collect the needed names in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a matter of fairness and preserving the integrity of our election process in these unusual times,” the governor said in a statement about his decision to suspend portions of the state law on signature gathering through an executive order.
“By easing certain requirements of the signature gathering process, but requiring that signatures be verified by the state after submission, this order strikes the appropriate balance in preserving a signature gathering path to the ballot, even as Utahns follow orders and recommendations regarding social distancing,” Herbert said.
Signature gathering during the COVID-19 outbreak had become an issue in the governor’s race for two of the seven Republicans seeking to succeed Herbert, who is not running for reelection after more than a decade in office.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant even called on the governor Wednesday to halt signature gathering altogether, saying the party has received dozens of complaints about candidates sending canvassers door to door, noting none were about Democrats.
Both former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Jan Garbett, the only gubernatorial candidates still gathering voter signatures, pushed Hebert for changes in the process. Herbert, who was Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, assumed the governor’s office in 2009 when Huntsman stepped down to become U.S. ambassador to China,
Candidates Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright have already met the threshold of 28,000 verified voter names for a place on the primary ballot, while businessman Jeff Burningham stopped gathering signatures last week because of the virus.
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes are competing for the Republican nomination only at the state GOP convention, where delegates can advance up to two candidates to the ballot.
Huntsman tweeted Monday that “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 office preserves our democracy.”
Although Huntsman suggested in another tweet that allowing electronic signatures might be the answer, his campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, said Thursday, “we were open to what a solution looked like” and called Herbert’s order “a good solution to social distancing.”
“Obviously, we want to keep public health front and center, so this at least allows for that but also for us to continue to engage the public in the democratic process,” Roskelley said. “We’ve really lost an important two weeks of being able to effectively communicate with voters.”
Garbett and her legal counsel sent a letter Monday to the governor and Cox, whose office oversees elections, stating “immediate steps must be taken to ensure that candidates, such as Jan, are not unconstitutionally faced with the choice of ending their campaign or placing the public at risk.”
A spokesman for Garbett, Daniel Friend, said Thursday, “Our legal team is currently reviewing the implications of the governor’s order.”
Winder Newton, who had decided weeks ago to focus on the convention route to the ballot, offered praise for Herbert’s decision.
“We are dealing with unprecedented challenges in the midst of this election,” she said. “The governor has struck the right balance between making some accommodations and still honoring a fair process.”
Hughes advisor Greg Hartley, however, was critical.
“COVID-19 has made this election difficult for all campaigns but changing the rules in the middle of the game is completely unfair,” Hartley said. “This only benefits certain campaigns who were already struggling. Nothing about their struggles justifies this executive order.”
Burningham also took issue with the order.
“Either elections matter or they don’t. I believe this election does matter and is critical to the future of Utah,” he said. “The people of Utah fully deserve the opportunity to choose their next governor. Everything in our world has changed drastically over the last two weeks and unfortunately, Gov. Herbert’s actions are too slow and don’t do enough to ensure that the people’s voice will be made known in this critical election in our state.”
His spokesman Michael Jolley said he wasn’t sure whether Burningham would resume gathering voter signatures. He said in a text it’s a “pretty tough hill to climb to ask Republican voters (who tend to be older) to print off a piece of paper, sign it, scan it, and email it back to the campaign.”
Herbert’s order allows a signed form to be returned via fax or mail as well. His executive order suspends the requirement that petition packets be bound prior to circulation and that a circulator personally witness each signature. The forms must be signed by hand rather than electronically.
The governor’s office said the decision was made in consultation with the Utah Attorney General’s office and former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie, who has been working with the elections office in an advisory capacity since May 2019 because Cox is a candidate.
“Having recused himself from this process, Lt. Gov. Cox appreciates the work of former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie in making these recommendations to assure Utahns of a fair and unbiased elections process,” Cox spokeswoman Heather Barney said.
“Gathering signatures is a difficult undertaking for any candidate, and Lt. Gov. Cox appreciates the work of more than 500 volunteers who worked in every corner of the state to help him accomplish this goal,” she said.