SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's lieutenant governor ruled Tuesday that the Count My Vote initiative failed to gather enough signatures after almost 3,000 names were removed from petitions submitted in April.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox also announced that another contentious initiative — this one dealing with medical marijuana — has been certified to appear on November's ballot. Opponents of both measures have filed lawsuits in an effort to prevent them from going before voters this fall.
Two other initiative efforts were certified as having enough valid signatures to appear on the November ballot: expanding Medicaid coverage and creating an independent redistricting commission.
To qualify for the ballot, an initiative must have more than 113,000 voter signatures — 10 percent of votes cast for president in the most recent election — that meet specific thresholds in at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts.
Organizers for each initiative had until April 15 to gather signatures. Voters then had another month to change their minds and fill out signature removal forms. Opponents of both the medical marijuana and Count My Vote initiatives circulated those forms in targeted areas of the state.
Over the past few weeks, 2,951 people have who had previously signed the Count My Vote petition had their names erased. The initiative fell short in six Senate districts, including three covering Davis, Utah and Washington counties due to signature removals.
"This is what we expected. We expected to stop them at this point," said Brandon Beckham, director of Keep My Voice, an opposing campaign.
Rich McKeown, Count My Vote's executive chairman, said the group "as urgently and as immediately" as possible plans to challenge Cox's decision in the Utah Supreme Court as allowed under state law. An application is due to the court by June 15.
"We are not done. This moves into the next phase," he said, adding that Count My Vote always anticipated the issue would be resolved in court. "There's reason for us to be optimistic that we will be on the ballot."
The Count My Vote initiative would maintain the current nomination system that allows candidates to collect voter signatures, go through the state’s traditional caucus/convention process or both to secure a spot on the primary election ballot.
Keep My Voice wants to keep the caucus and convention system but scrap signature gathering. The group contacted people through email and mailers and in person — heavily targeting Utah, Davis and Washington counties — urging them to rescind their support for Count My Vote to deny the initiative a place on the ballot.
Beckham said Keep My Voice is determined to fight to the end, and like Count My Vote, is prepared for litigation.
"Whatever they do legally, we'll be right there in court with them," he said.
Both groups say they have thousands of signatures — Keep My Voice signatures that weren't counted, Count My Vote signatures that were improperly invalidated — that need to be considered.
Keep My Voice sued Cox last week, asking a state judge to order the lieutenant governor to recuse himself from all matters related to the initiative. The lawsuit claims Cox has a personal and partisan conflict of interest and that he failed to follow state elections law.
Beckham said the lawsuit will continue regardless of Cox declaring Count My Vote ineligible for the ballot.
According to a news release from Cox, the Count My Vote initiative petition contained 131,984 valid signatures but met thresholds in just 23 of 29 districts. His office found 2,951 valid removal requests.
The Medical Cannabis Act had 153,894 valid signatures in 27 of Utah's 29 Senate districts. Efforts to remove signatures netted 1,425 people rescinding their support, but did not disqualify any districts where enough people had already signed.
"We are excited to have overcome one more obstacle in our efforts to give patients access to cannabis for many of their difficult and trying medical needs," said DJ Schanz, director of the initiative campaign called the Utah Patients Coalition, in a statement.
"The lieutenant governor certifying the Utah Medical Cannabis Act for the ballot is a huge step, especially given the well-organized and funded opposition to eliminate people's ability to vote on the issue."
The initiative would permit patients diagnosed with certain illnesses or conditions to apply for a medical cannabis card, allowing them to possess specified amounts of marijuana legally.
The signature removal campaign carried out by Drug Safe Utah appeared to fall just short in Senate District 29, whose population base is in Washington County, and District 22, which includes Layton and Farmington in its boundaries.
In Senate District 22, the petition cleared the legal threshold by just 35 names, while that threshold was exceeded by just 69 in Senate District 29.
Walter Plumb, president of Drug Safe Utah — a political issues committee which formed in April expressly to oppose the medical marijuana initiative — questioned whether confusion over the signature removal deadline could have prevented the political issues committee from turning in enough forms.
"(The state created) a form which we sent out to 11,000 people in three counties and it said May 15 on the form," Plumb said, despite the state's insistence that the actual statutory deadline was May 14.
Cox's office confirmed signature removal forms turned in on May 15 were not counted as valid. State data published Tuesday indicated 175 forms submitted to Davis County were recorded as being received May 15 and were not counted.
Davis County Clerk/Auditor Curtis Koch said earlier this month that forms which were turned in by Drug Safe Utah late at night on May 14 at his home would be recorded as having been received instead on May 15.
Though 175 signature removal forms could have brought signatures below the required threshold in Senate District 22 if that's where they were collected, available state data Tuesday wasn't clear on precisely where in Davis County those forms came from, including whether they were from that district.
Elsewhere, 11 signature removal forms were noted as being received on May 15 in Washington County and 30 were reported as received that day in Cache County.
Plumb said a recent lawsuit filed by Drug Safe Utah, arguing Cox's approval of the initiative for signature gathering in the first place was in violation of the Utah and U.S. constitutions, will proceed as planned. The lawsuit was also recently amended to include arguments pertaining to the state's handling of the signature removal deadline, he said.
The Utah Decides Healthcare Act of 2018, an effort to expand Medicaid to more Utahns, had 147,280 signatures in 26 of 29 districts. Just four people filed for removal from petitions.
"This was a critical milestone to ensure 150,000 Utahns will gain access to health care coverage," said RyLee Curtis, spokeswoman for the initiative campaign. "We are working hard to win in November to make sure our friends and neighbors have health care coverage when they truly need it.”
The initiative would raise sales taxes in order to draw down federal matching to fund the expansion of coverage to all Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
A drive to set up an independent redistricting commission had 150,082 approved signatures in 26 districts. No signatures were removed from the measure.32 comments on this story
"We knew that we had the signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot," said Catherine Kanter, manager of the initiative's campaign called Better Boundaries. "We're delighted to have received the official confirmation from the lieutenant governor's office today."
Better Boundaries says on its website that the initiative would establish "an independent redistricting commission and (prescribe) redistricting standards and requirements" in order to fight the practice of gerrymandering.