POLITICS & ELECTIONS

Governor candidate Phil Lyman calls for audit into Gov. Spencer Cox’s signatures

Jun 23, 2024, 8:33 AM

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman speaks as he debates with incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox during Utah's gubernatori...

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman speaks as he debates with incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox during Utah's gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Isaac Hale/Deseret News)

(Isaac Hale/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Four days before Utah’s Republican primary election, gubernatorial candidate Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, is calling for an audit to look into whether the signatures Gov. Spencer Cox gathered should count.

“Unrealistically high” number of valid signatures

First, Lyman told KSL he found it suspicious that 85% of Cox’s signatures were deemed valid.

“And then the statistical analysis on (Cox’s signatures),” said Lyman, “is almost unrealistically high acceptance rate. And I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m saying it’s way out of line without anybody else that was counted.”

Normally the lieutenant governor oversees elections and signature gathering. But Utah law says in statewide races, that job goes to the Davis County Clerk.

What counts?

“So in (the governor’s race), we’re looking at registered voters anywhere in the state of Utah that are registered Republican,” said Davis County Clerk Brian McKenzie. “Their name has to match substantially of how they’re registered to vote, the address they provided has to match the address where they’re registered, the signature has to match the signature that we have on file.”

He said three of those four things must match for a signature to be valid. McKenzie checked 32,853 signatures collected for Cox. Of those, 4,847 did not make the cut. He said most of the rejects weren’t registered Republicans. That means 28,006 signatures reviewed were accepted.

One of Lyman’s concerns is that another statewide race, for the U.S. Senate, had a much lower validity rate for some candidates. McKenzie said that’s the wrong way to look at it.

“That’s not how this works,” said McKenzie. “Every (signature) packet is reviewed individually and independently of any other packet and any other signature.”

On Friday afternoon, McKenzie published a statement on the Davis County Clerk’s Facebook page detailing the security process of checking signatures.

He said all candidate petitions “were delivered directly” to his office, where they were “date stamped” and reviewed by at least two workers who had passed a criminal background check and received training in signature verification.

Washington County investigation

The Lyman campaign also argued that a criminal investigation in Washington County casts doubt on the Cox campaign.

State Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, hired the signature collecting company Gather Inc. to help him acquire the required 2,400 signatures of registered Republicans in his district to get on the primary ballot.

However, the Washington County auditor ruled 600 of the reviewed signatures invalid, and Ipson said he got a full refund from Gather Inc.

Washington County attorney Eric Clarke said the high number of invalid signatures prompted his office to investigate. But he said Gather Inc. is not involved in the investigation.

“We are not far enough along in our investigation to make any conclusions regarding (criminal activity),” said Clarke, “but I can confirm that currently there definitely is no evidence of wrongdoing by any candidate, and I’m not aware of any evidence having to do with the overall company.”

CEO of Gather Inc., Tanner Leatham said this error came from contractors who didn’t follow company rules or use the correct software. His software shows signature-gatherers where registered Republicans live, so they don’t waste their time gathering signatures that won’t count.

“A few of our people weren’t really diligent in using the software, and they collected signatures from anyone and everyone. And a lot of those signatures ended up not counting,” Leatham said.

However, Leatham said he drew a line between that effort and the one for Cox.

“(Cox) has thousands of extra signatures that we’ve collected, just to be safe, to make sure that he has more than he needs to qualify.”

McKenzie could not immediately confirm how many signatures in total were provided by Gather Inc. in the gubernatorial race.

Independent audit

Lyman called for an outside group, preferably a CPA firm, to review the signatures Gather Inc. collected for the Cox campaign.

“Independent third-party verification. Period. It’s the insurance service. That’s why (accounting firm) Price-Waterhouse-Cooper verifies the results of the Ms. Universe pageant. To me, it’s not rocket science, it’s so, so simple. The fact that the Lieutenant Governor’s Office won’t do it under any circumstances is very telling. There’s no transparency,” Lyman said.

McKenzie said he does not believe a signature review by an accounting firm is possible under Utah law.

“As it relates to additional reviews, I’m not aware that there’s anything in the law that would allow for that. Again, that’s a legislative decision. Our legislature can consider that and think through if that’s something that they feel needs to be in place,” McKenzie said.

Lyman’s running mate, Natalie Clawson, said in a video posted on her X account that she had not received a response from the lieutenant governor’s office.

Again, the Washington County Attorney said they did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by a candidate, nor any evidence involving Gather Inc. as a company, in their investigation.

In response to a request for comment, Utah Director of Elections Ryan Cowley said:

We’ve received a number of GRAMA requests from political candidates and their supporters. We’re following the process as outlined in state law and will respond to those requests as quickly as we can during this extremely busy time for our office.

GRAMA is the state law involving public records access in Utah. Clawson said she also made a public records request for the signatures gathered by Attorney General candidate Derek Brown and Senate candidate Brad Wilson.

Privacy vs. transparency

Some Utahns did receive data from Cox’s signature packets in response to public records requests.

However, 40% of the names are redacted, according to Clawson. She argued the names of voters who signed Cox’s packets should be public because the Utah elections website includes them for citizen initiatives, all without private and withheld names.

However, Utah law lets voters decide whether to keep their names anonymous when it comes to signature packets.

For a “candidate petition,” which is when a candidate gathers signatures to get on the ballot, “The records custodian of a signature… shall, upon request, except for a name or signature classified as private… provide a list of the names of individuals who signed the petition or request,” the law states.

That’s different than the rule for citizen initiatives and referenda.

For both a referendum or citizen initiative, the law requires the county clerk to “post the names, voter identification numbers, and dates of signatures described in (another part of Utah code) on the lieutenant governor’s website, in a conspicuous location… for at least 90 days.”

Gov. Spencer Cox responds

The Cox campaign responded to a request for comment with the following statement:

“The Governor is confident that the Davis County Clerk’s office followed all state laws in this race and the other election efforts that it oversees. The Governor will continue promoting his optimistic and conservative vision for Utah’s future ahead of next Tuesday’s election.”

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Governor candidate Phil Lyman calls for audit into Gov. Spencer Cox’s signatures