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Candidates begin gathering signatures for place on primary ballot

Alternative route becoming ‘a bit more normal,’ election official says

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SALT LAKE CITY — The start of the new year means candidates running for state and federal offices, including in the already competitive congressional and gubernatorial races, can begin collecting voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot.

First, though, they must file a statement declaring their intent to take the signature gathering route to the ballot with the lieutenant governor’s office that oversees state elections. While they have until March 19 to get that paperwork in, many candidates filed Thursday, the day filing opened.

Elections Director Justin Lee cautioned that even then, they’re not technically considered candidates.

“This is all preliminary,” Lee said. “This just allows them to start gathering signatures.”

Candidates can’t actually file to run for office until March 13-19. At that point, they’ll have to declare whether they’re taking the signature gathering path to the ballot, competing at their political party’s convention to be advanced to the primary by delegates, or both.

Those who decide to use what became an alternative to the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties in the state to nominate candidates have until two weeks before those conventions to finish getting the required number of voter signatures — 7,000 for a congressional seat and 28,000 for governor.

Lee said gathering signatures has become “a bit more normal” for candidates. The Utah GOP, which unsuccessfully sued the state over the 2014 law creating the new method of qualifying for a primary ballot, failed to muster the votes last fall to repeal a bylaw that would expel party members who gather signatures, but it isn’t being enforced.

So far, mostly Republicans have filed to gather signatures, including for state legislative races.

But Friday evening, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, tweeted from his campaign account that he wouldn’t be joining the list.

“I’m pleased to announce that I will NOT be gathering signatures for my 2020 re-election. I was originally elected by delegates in 2012 and fully embrace and endorse Utah’s caucus-convention system. I look forward to meeting with as many delegates as possible in the coming months,” Stewart wrote.

In the 4th Congressional District, incumbent Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams has filed to collect voter signatures and will also compete at convention, his campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said after Democrat Daniel Beckstrand, who describes himself as a progressive, submitted his intent to gather signatures.

“Ben doesn’t shy away from standing up to the Democrats in D.C.,” Roberts said. “His bipartisan approach ruffles the feathers of the party faithful. We feel confident about winning at the convention, but aren’t going to take anything for granted.”

Although McAdams had signed up in 2018 to use signatures to guarantee a place on the ballot, his campaign decided then the expense wasn’t necessary and he easily beat a trio of challengers coming from the left at that year’s state Democratic Party convention.

Republicans have been lining up to take on McAdams, including former Utah GOP communications adviser Kathleen Anderson, state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland, former NFL player Burgess Owens and nurse practitioner Chris Biesinger.

On Thursday, both Mcfarland and Owens filed their intent to gather signatures.

Five of the Republicans running for governor have already put in the paperwork to collect signatures — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, businessman Jeff Burningham, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Gov. Gary Herbert is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.

There may be at least two more Republicans in the race, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who is expected to announce next week he’s running, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Bishop has said he’ll make his decision known this month but will compete only at convention if he runs.

Bishop has already ruled out running for another term in Congress, opening up his 1st Congressional District seat. One Democrat, Jamie Cheek, and three Republicans, Bob Stevenson, Tina Cannon and Howard Wallack, have filed to collect signatures.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the possibility of so many candidates in various races getting on the ballot raises the issue of being able to win a party’s nomination with only a plurality of votes rather than a majority, something lawmakers have not yet figured out how to fix.

That may stir up sentiment against gathering signatures among the Republican faithful, Burbank said.

“It’s something that can always come back, at least at this point,” the professor said, despite efforts by Brown as chairman to get members of the state’s dominate political party to “focus more on winning elections and less on tearing each other apart.”

For Republican candidates, Burbank said the advantage of gathering voter signatures is sending the message to voters, “‘I’m serious about trying to be on the primary ballot and I’m not just going to hope for the best at the convention.’ ... If they think they’re going to have the resources to do that, it almost always makes sense.”

Lee said voters approached by candidates for their signatures should remember they can only sign one petition in any given race. If a voter signs multiple petitions, only the first signature turned in by a candidate will be counted, the election director said.

Also, voters signing for Republican candidates must be registered Republicans themselves, Lee said, because a signature can only be valid if a voter is able to vote in that primary and GOP primary elections are closed to nonmembers.