SALT LAKE CITY — Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham ended his signature gathering efforts to qualify for the primary election ballot to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
Burningham said it has been difficult for him to sleep the past few nights thinking about campaign volunteers and paid staff members knocking on some 1,500 doors a day, coming in contact with thousands of people.
“We don’t want to keep passing a pen or a packet or a clipboard from family to family, potentially spreading the coronavirus as we go,” he said Friday.
Candidates must obtain 28,000 voter signatures, which the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office must verify, to qualify for the June 30 primary election.
Burningham, a wealthy businessman, said he would now try to get on the primary ballot at the GOP state convention among a crowded field of Republican candidates. He said his campaign had gathered more than 20,000 signatures.
“I want to make abundantly clear, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of this campaign,” he said. “I am determined to get on the ballot at the convention.”
While Burningham called his decision difficult and a “choice of personal conscience,” he encouraged other candidates to consider suspending signature gathering.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown said the party isn’t going to tell candidates what approach to take, but said they should be aware of the unique circumstances the state is in, referencing Gov. Gary Herbert’s recommendations for gatherings and other activities.
That said, Brown called Burningham’s decision “bold.”
“It’s one that, as he admitted, is perhaps one that is not the politically advantageous decision, but I think we are likely to see other candidates adjusting their campaigns in light of what we’re doing,” he said.
The Utah GOP is moving to a virtual format for its state convention next month as is the Utah Democratic Party.
One Republican, Thomas Wright, has qualified for the ballot through signature gathering. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, both Republicans, have turned in their signatures and the lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees state elections, is in the process of certifying them.
Former GOP Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes opted to take only the convention path in the state’s two-track nomination system. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican, stopped collecting signatures, citing the high cost of hiring a signature-gathering firm.
Huntsman and Cox are the clear leaders in the race to replace Herbert, who is not seeking reelection. Burningham and Hughes were tied for a distant third in the most recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
Meantime, another GOP candidate, Jan Garbett, asked the lieutenant governor’s office to consider allowing candidates to collect signatures online. But Garbett said the office rebuffed the request.
“This is really frustrating,” she said. “I understand containing the spread of the coronavirus is the most important thing government officials are focusing on right now, but they are not willing to give this important issue a moment’s consideration.”
Garbett said people are refusing to open their doors to signature gatherers, making it difficult for candidates to make the April 13 deadline. She said her campaign has a good start, but had expected to still have several weeks to complete the process.
Justin Lee, the state elections director, said there is nothing in state law that allows for electronic signature gathering. Signatures, he said, must be in wet ink. Also, the lieutenant governor doesn’t have the power to waive the requirement under any circumstances, he said.
The state, however, made at least one election law adjustment because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Herbert issued an executive order to allow individuals to file declarations of candidacy through a designated representative by suspending the enforcement of a law that requires potential candidates to file in person. The deadline to file for office is next Thursday.
“This morning, I recommended measures to introduce more social distancing in our communities, and we encourage all Utahns who are feeling sick to stay home until they feel well. This declaration simply creates a pathway for individuals to participate in the political process, even if they are experiencing symptoms and need to stay home,” he said.
State and local authorities recommend individuals experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 self-isolate until symptoms disappear.