Facebook Twitter

Less than 15 percent of candidates took signature-gathering path to primary ballot

SHARE Less than 15 percent of candidates took signature-gathering path to primary ballot

SALT LAKE CITY — Less than 15 percent of state and federal candidates successfully used Utah's new signature-gathering path to the primary ballot, and for those who did, it wasn't cheap.

Candidates who hired others to gather signatures for them under Utah's new election law paid between $4 and $12 per signature.

In all, those candidates spent nearly $455,000 on gathering signatures, according to available campaign finance disclosures.

Of the 276 candidates eligible to use the signature-gathering route, only 90 — roughly one-third — declared an intent to gather signatures. Of those, just 41 — or 14.9 percent — had enough signatures to qualify for the primary, according to the state elections office.

Earlier this year, the Utah Lieutenant Governor's Office advised candidates to pursue both the traditional path to the primary ballot through Utah's convention system and the new signature-gathering option introduced in 2014 by SB54 because of legal challenges to the law.

Four candidates gathered some signatures but came up short in the end.

Gov. Gary Herbert took the advice from the lieutenant governor's office and ended up paying Gathering Inc. $154,000 to collect 28,000 signatures — or $5.50 per signature.

"The governor is not one to leave things to chance," said Marty Carpenter, Herbert's campaign manager. Choosing to take both routes was the "responsible, pragmatic" option, Carpenter said.

Chia-Chi Teng, who's challenging Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in District 3, paid $86,000 for 7,000 signatures — or $12.29 per signature.

Tanner Leatham, CEO of Utah-based Gathering Inc., said the company collected about half of the signatures for Teng. Financial disclosures show that Teng paid Gathering Inc. $16,200, or about $4.62 per signature.

While the rates may seem high to some, Leatham said national companies charge between $10 and $12 per signature.

"We were really saving these guys a lot of money," he said.

Teng's financial documents indicate the other signatures were collected by two California-based companies.

Other state candidates spent up to $13,000 to gather 1,000 to 2,000 signatures.

For many campaigns, the cost of the signatures paid for more than a spot on the ballot.

"The grass-roots network we built is invaluable," said Collin Pace, Teng's campaign manager. "It cost more than we wanted, but that's the way it is."

Carpenter said Herbert's campaign used the signature-gathering process to encourage people to attend caucus meetings in March.

State candidates who gathered signatures with the help of volunteers saved money and got to know their potential constituency, they said.

Carl Albrecht is running for the House District 70 seat currently held by Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, who is not seeking re-election.

With a self-funded campaign, Albrecht said he couldn't afford the cost of a firm to collect signatures.

He started gathering signatures on Jan. 4 with a team of volunteers, he said. After about a month, Albrecht had all of the signatures he needed, but more importantly, he said, he got to meet people in his area.

Adam Gardiner, who's running against Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, used voter information from Gather Inc. but had volunteers collect signatures for him. Gardiner said gathering signatures allowed him to talk to voters much earlier than he would have been able to through the convention system.

“That was fun for me,” he said. "It was just a great way to get my name out there."

Scott Miller, vice chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, said the signature-gathering process makes it easier for the wealthy to get their names on the ballot.

The high cost of collecting signatures, Miller said, is a problem.

"It stops normal people from running for office," he said.

While gathering signatures in state and county races without the help of a firm is possible, it's another roadblock for the typical Utahn, Miller said.

Time can also be a deterrent from gathering signatures for many candidates, he said.

"Most people have full-time jobs," Miller said, "so do they really have the time to gather the signatures in the short amount of time?"

But time can also be an issue for those who choose to not gather signatures. In those cases, they must spend time traveling and meeting delegates, said Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden.

Pitcher, who pursued both the signature-gathering and convention paths, said meeting with delegates can become very time-consuming. Pitcher said he felt paying a firm to collect signatures was the better route because the 2016 Legislature took place during that time.

It took the firm a month or longer to gather enough signatures, Pitcher said. He paid Gathering Inc. $5,000 to gather 1,000 signatures.

"Some areas are easier than others," he said. "Mine was fairly difficult because there's not as many registered Republicans."

That's another roadblock in the process, Pitcher said.

Republican candidates must collect signatures from registered Republicans because only registered Republicans can participate in the GOP primary, according to Mark Thomas, director of elections.

Because the state Democratic Primary is open to any voter, anyone can sign a Democratic candidate's petition, Thomas said.

There are also other requirements. Voters can only sign a petition for one candidate for a particular office, and they must live in the candidate's district, Thomas said.

Sen. Mike Lee's campaign only needed 28,000 signatures but collected around 32,000 just to be safe, his campaign manager, Jordan Hess, said.

Lee's campaign paid Gathering Inc. $128,000 or $4.50 per signature, Hess said.

Carpenter said that while the signature-gathering route had a definable cost, the convention option isn't without a price.

For the governor, going through convention requires costs related to town meetings, travel, dinners, county conventions, mailers, and email and telephone campaigns, Carpenter said.

"There’s a cost involved with running a campaign either way," he said.

Email: elarson@deseretnews.com