Federal judge weighs fate of gubernatorial candidates

Chief Judge Robert J. Shelby of the U.S. District Court is now weighing whether to approve attempts by two failed GOP gubernatorial candidates to place their names on the Republican primary ballot.

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah political candidates are rising from the dead like zombies and federal judges are to blame.

The night of the living dead candidates began with GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jan Garbett.

After failing to gather enough voter signatures to qualify for the state primary on June 30, Garbett refused to participate in the Republican nominating convention. Instead, she appealed to a federal judge that she deserved a spot on the ballot anyway.

In U.S. District Court, Garbett’s attorneys sued state officials, arguing that Utah’s social distancing and self-isolation guidelines kept their candidate from collecting the 28,000 valid voter signatures necessary to qualify for the primary. They requested that federal Judge Robert J. Shelby order that Garbett’s name be placed on the primary ballot.

Shelby was sympathetic, but not that sympathetic. Instead, his Honor unilaterally lowered the ballot threshold to 19,040 signatures and directed the Lieutenant Governor’s office to begin the process of verifying the approximately 21,000 ballots that Garbett’s campaign had previously collected.

Meanwhile, figuring that what was good for the goose was good for the gander, GOP hopeful Jeff Burningham also filed a motion in federal court seeking a slot on the primary ballot.

Burningham was eliminated early in the ranked-choice voting at the GOP nomination convention on April 25, but his campaign had collected slightly more than 19,000 voter signatures prior to the imposition of the state’s safety guidelines due to the Coronavirus.

Veteran political observers were dubious about either of the zombie gubernatorial candidates qualifying for the primary ballot even under the new lowered threshold set by Shelby. The signatures collected by any candidate can be disqualified if the signer isn’t a registered Republican voter or if they have previously signed for another candidate.

By April 29, state officials had already reviewed more than 3,000 of Garbett’s signatures and found that more than 1,800 were invalid. At that point, they advised Judge Shelby that it was mathematically impossible for Garbett to achieve even the lower ballot threshold.

But Garbett’s attorneys are now arguing that Shelby’s reasoning in setting the lower threshold was flawed.

They contend that the judge’s original ruling would require that an unprecedented 90 percent of Garbett’s signatures be judged as valid in order for her to qualify for the primary ballot. A validity rate of 70 percent is more reasonable, Garbett’s attorneys contend, requesting that Shelby adjust the ballot threshold to just 13,660 valid signatures.

Burningham’s attorneys like that idea as well, since their total count of 19,150 signatures barely exceeds Shelby’s original revised threshold.

Of the three candidates eliminated by the nominating convention on April 25, only Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton has resisted the temptation to join the ranks of the zombie candidates. She seems content to abide by the GOP delegates’ decision.

If both Garbett and Burningham are able to qualify for the primary ballot one way or another, the GOP gubernatorial primary race will be a six-way contest.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former State GOP chair Thomas Wright all qualified for the primary ballot by collecting 28,000 valid voter signatures despite the Coronavirus restrictions. Former Utah House speaker Greg Hughes also qualified for the primary ballot by winning 43 percent of delegates’ votes at the nominating convention.

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