Gov. Herbert tosses lifeline to potential replacements

Gov. Gary Herbert has issued an executive order to facilitate campaigning by political candidates during the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.

SALT LAKE CITY — Outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert has thrown a lifeline to political candidates whose efforts to gather qualifying voter signatures had stalled due to the Coronavirus.

Herbert issued an executive order Thursday that amended a 2014 Utah statute governing political campaigns that allows candidates to place their names directly on the June primary ballot by gathering signatures from registered voters. That option has been a popular way for political candidates to sidestep the risk of failing to be nominated by their party’s conventions.

Signature gathering through face-to-face contact with voters by candidates vying for Utah’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and for the office of governor had been stymied since mid-March by state guidelines for social distancing and self-quarantine.

Thanks to Herbert’s executive order, candidates will now be able to collect signatures via online means.

That change especially benefits two candidates in Utah’s crowded 2020 gubernatorial race – former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and real estate developer Jan Garbett. Both of their campaigns were still seeking qualifying voter signatures in mid-March when the Coronavirus guidelines took effect.

According to a recent joint poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Huntsman is the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, favored by 32 percent of a representative sample of likely primary voters. But the former governor’s chances of earning a ballot slot from hard-line delegates at the April GOP state convention is still viewed as a long-shot.

Candidates Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright have already qualified for the June primary ballot by collecting 28,000 signatures each. Two other candidates – Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes – have elected to qualify for the primary ballot at the state GOP convention in April, which will be conducted via online technology for the first time. The only remaining candidate, businessman Jeff Burningham, had stopped collecting signatures due to the Coronavirus outbreak, but may resume that process as a result of Herbert’s executive order.

Political pressure had been building on Herbert to take some action in recent days as GOP gubernatorial candidates grew increasingly frustrated by their inability to campaign and canvass via traditional methods. Even Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant joined that chorus, saying that registered Democrats were complaining that GOP canvassers were violating the state social distancing guidelines.

But the process outlined in Herbert’s executive order is still represents a headache for campaign officials.

Under that directive, registered voters may download a blank signature form from the campaign websites of various candidates. The signed form must then be returned to the candidate’s campaign managers via either FAX or U.S. Postal Service mail. While the executive order suspends the requirement that each signature be personally witnessed, each form must still be signed by hand.

Campaign officials will compile the signatures and submit them to the Office of the Lt. Governor to be validated.

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