Merrill Cook's initiative petition on term limits and runoff elections is going back to county clerks for further investigation, but Lt. Gov. Olene Walker guesses Cook has enough valid signatures of registered voters to get the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Walker, who met with county clerks Wednesday, said Friday that clerks have just learned that two people who may have falsified voter signatures on petitions in Salt Lake County also circulated petitions in Davis, Utah and Juab counties.The clerks "unanimously demanded that I send back all the petitions," said Walker. "Since they have subpeona powers, I figured it was just easier to give them back. It appears (the two petition gathers) just copied names out of the telephone book."
Cook, sponsor of the petition drive and Independent Party candidate for Congress, called it a political smear.
The initiative needed 76,253 valid signatures to get on the November ballot. The clerks had verified more than 90,000 signatures, which Cook said provided an ample margin against any forged signatures that had escaped detection.
"This isn't directed because more people are out falsifying. They know who those people were. They're doing this because they want to discredit me," Cook said.
Walker denied that. "I hope this office has done everything possible to be fair to Merrill Cook," she said. After learning that two paid signature-gatherers likely falisfied signatures, Cook told Salt Lake County Clerk Sherri Swenson to throw out all the petitions those people circulated, even though many of the signatures were probably good, Cook said. Swenson did so, and Cook still had thousands more Salt Lake County signatures than he needed.
Cook said if the state tries to keep the initiative off the November ballot, he will mount a legal fight. "They won't get away with it as long as I'm in town," he said.
The initiative would limit state officers, like governor and legislator, county officers and U.S. House members to eight consecutive years in office and U.S. senators to 12 years. It also would provide for runoff elections in races in which no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote.
State officials questioned the constitutionality of the runoff provision but decided not to try to keep it off the ballot. However, Walker says if citizens approve the initiative in the Nov. 8 general election, she will be in court seeking to have the run-off provision declared unconstitutional on Nov. 9.
Walker has already officially certified Cook's initiative, and voter information guides and other election materials are going forward as if the initiative were to be on the ballot. "There's no guidance in the (initiative statute) dealing with fraud," says Walker. If clerks throw out 15,000 more signatures - and Cook doesn't have 76,000 valid signatures - "I don't know exactly what we'll do; do some pretty quick legal study, I guess," said Walker.