POLITICS & ELECTIONS

Washington County attorney says no evidence of a candidate acting inappropriately in signature gathering

Jun 22, 2024, 9:32 PM | Updated: 9:34 pm

(Zoë Petersen, Deseret News)...

(Zoë Petersen, Deseret News)

(Zoë Petersen, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY In a video posted on social media, Natalie Clawson, running mate to gubernatorial candidate Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, confronts members of the lieutenant governor’s office and claims signature-gathering petitions of primary candidates are being withheld from her campaign.

But state law prevents the lieutenant governor’s office from releasing those petitions without redactions because the signatures are considered protected information. It’s different than what state code says about referenda and initiatives.

Earlier this month, Lyman’s campaign along with fellow GOP candidates Frank Mylar (running for attorney general) and Tina Cannon (seeking the office of state auditor) announced they had submitted government records requests to obtain the signature-gathering petitions of candidates in the race. Clawson submitted a request for the petitions of Gov. Spencer Cox, attorney general candidate Derek Brown and U.S. Senate candidate Brad Wilson.

The Lyman campaign pointed to a case in Washington County where a company gathering signatures for state Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, came under scrutiny due to irregularities. Ipson ended up qualifying for the ballot through the Republican county convention since he didn’t receive enough verified signatures. The company that collected signatures for him, Gathering Inc., was also used by Wilson and Cox, though financial disclosures show Brown used a different company called In The Field.

These irregularities are being investigated, said Eric Clarke, Washington County attorney, to the Deseret News in a phone call.

But Clarke also said there was no evidence of a candidate or the company acting inappropriately. He said he was looking into the matter to do his due diligence and build public trust.

“I want people to be able to trust the processes that we have and know that there are checks on all the processes to make sure that they work,” said Clarke.

In a statement to the Deseret News, Clawson said, “There is a strong public interest to know that the candidates who are on the primary ballot received the necessary verified signatures to be placed on the ballot. We are not making any allegations. We are only asking for transparency. We urge the state to use its discretion to release all information it legally can release for the sake of transparency and to ensure confidence in the election process.”

The Deseret News obtained a copy of Clawson’s original government records request, which says the records should be released even though they are protected due to a compelling public interest, citing state law.

Davis County was in charge of verifying the signatures for Cox, Brown and Wilson. All of these signatures were verified weeks before the deadline, so if they hadn’t collected enough signatures, they could have collected more. The lieutenant governor’s office certified the signatures after the verification process.

Tanner Leatham, owner of Gathering Inc., told the Deseret News on the phone that the company works through independent contractors. It’s an Ogden-based company that gathers signatures for races across the country. He said a couple of contractors gathering signatures for Ipson weren’t using the tools or training the company provides.

Some of the signatures, Leatham said, were not valid because they were collected from people who don’t live in Ipson’s district. Leatham explained that signatures can also be considered invalid if they don’t match up with how you signed previous records like voter registration. So, if you alter your signature, it could be marked invalid, even if it comes from you.

Leatham said he spoke with the Washington County Clerk early in the spring and made amends with Ipson over the matter.

“I have nothing to hide here. I have so many awesome hundreds of people that have worked with us that do a good job,” said Leatham, adding he hasn’t gotten a call about what happened since either February or March.

Speaking about signature gathering for Cox, Leatham said if there were verification problems with the signatures that were submitted, there were thousands more they gathered that could have been used by the Cox campaign.

“If they could disqualify five of them, there are thousands of extra signatures,” said Leatham, adding he wasn’t concerned about it.

Brian McKenzie, Davis County Clerk, issued a statement on Friday saying he affirmed that all petition signatures were verified in accordance with Utah law.

“There have been questions raised about the validity of candidate petition signatures verified by Davis County,” wrote McKenzie. “I affirm that each signature was reviewed by trained election workers and either validated or rejected in accordance with the requirements set forth by Utah law.”

McKenzie said workers checked to make sure the people signing on to petitions lived in the right area, were affiliated with the proper political party, their signatures were substantially similar to their voter registration records and that their addresses and age also matched their voter registration records.

Clawson’s government records request was denied.

In a copy of an email obtained by the Deseret News, the lieutenant governor’s office said it could either allow Clawson to view the signature packets in person after they were redacted, which would be around the end of July. Or, the other option the office gave was paying a $50 fee per candidate for a report with the names of signatories on the petition, unless their names were private or withheld — this could have been available as soon as one business day after it was requested.

The records cannot be handed out or even reviewed in person without redactions due to state law.

What does state law say?

State law does not allow for the lieutenant governor’s office to give out the petitions outright because signatures are considered protected information and some voters may have requested to have their information withheld.

For initiatives and referenda, the names, voter identification numbers and date of signatures need to be posted on the lieutenant governor’s website for several weeks. But that’s not true for petitions for candidates to get on the primary ballot.

A law passed in 2020, which Lyman voted for, says signatures on political petitions, including for candidates using them to get on the primary ballot, are considered protected information (the language underlined from line 519 onward was added to code). It went into effect in May 2021.

This means the lieutenant governor’s office cannot give requesters copies of signature-gathering petitions with signatures on them.

Also, Utah’s voter registration laws allow for voters to request their identifying information “be withheld from all political parties, candidates for public office, and their contractors, employees, and volunteers, by submitting a withholding request form.”

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Washington County attorney says no evidence of a candidate acting inappropriately in signature gathering