SALT LAKE CITY — The legal battle over access to the Republican primary ballot is over and Utah won.
Failed gubernatorial candidate Jan Garbett withdrew her petition to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on May 4. That motion sought to overturn a lower court decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Robert J. Shelby that denied Garbett access to the primary ballot by arbitrarily lowering the state-mandated threshold for the collection of voter signatures.
“This is certainly not the outcome we worked so hard for,” Garbett said in a statement released by her campaign. “I am disappointed that the courts did not make Utah’s election process fair in the face of the pandemic, as so many other states have done … I’m disappointed on a personal level as well. I feel I have a great deal to offer the people of this state on a great many issues.”
Garbett joined the race for the gubernatorial nomination on Feb. 24, a month later than most of her GOP rivals. Her campaign had collected nearly 21,000 signatures by mid-March when the statewide social distance and self-isolation guidelines to slow the spread of the Coronavirus were imposed. That forced most candidates to suspend signature gathering and pin their hopes on a favorable outcome at the state nominating convention on April 25.
But Garbett refused to participate in the convention process. Instead, she filed a lawsuit against the state on April 14, seeking a slot on the primary ballot by court ruling.
Judge Shelby was initially sympathetic to Garbett’s plea. He ordered that the threshold to qualify for the primary ballot be lowered to 19,040 signatures and directed the lieutenant governor’s office to begin the process of validating Garbett’s signatures.
By April 29, state officials had already reviewed more than 3,000 of Garbett’s signatures and found that more than 1,800 were invalid. At that point, they advised Judge Shelby that it was mathematically impossible for Garbett to achieve even the lower ballot threshold.
When Garbett’s attorneys then argued that the ballot threshold should be lowered again to just 13,660 signatures, Shelby denied that motion on May 1. The Garbett campaign then sought to overturn Shelby’s ruling with an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court.
By May 2, however, it was obvious that not even a favorable appeals court decision on the 13,660-signature threshold could resurrect Garbett’s campaign. In a court filing, state officials had reported that only 8,711 of Garbett’s signatures were valid. The remainder had been rejected because the signer was not registered to vote, was not a Republican voter or had already signed for another candidate.
In her statement, Garbett said her experience has proved “just how hard” it is for a political outsider to get on the ballot in the state of Utah.
“It’s nearly impossible,” Garbett insisted, “and it’s designed to be that way. I am a person of significant but not unlimited resources and I simply could not fight the governor, the Legislature and the courts all at the same time.”
Garbett’s appeal to the Denver court had been a something of a Hail-Mary pass in any case, since its requested threshold of 13,660 signatures depended on 70 percent of her campaign’s signatures proving to be valid. But the validity of voter signatures had been a sore point with most GOP candidates in the run-up to the state nominating convention.
The campaign of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox barely qualified for the primary ballot by submitting 38,862 signatures. Nearly 28 percent of those signatures proved to be invalid.
The campaign of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. faced similar problems, according to spokesperson Lisa Roskelley. After initially submitting about 45,000 signatures, state officials had reported that more than 18,000 were invalid. The campaign eventually had to submit nearly 60,000 signatures to clear the 28,000-signature threshold to qualify for the primary ballot.
With Garbett’s suit withdrawn, four Republican candidates for governor are now on the primary ballot. They are Cox, Huntsman, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes.