Matt Gade, Deseret News
FILE - Dr. Christian Neff speaks during the Count My Vote press conference on the south steps of the capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Backers of the Count My Vote initiative that Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox ruled failed to qualify for the November ballot asked the Utah Supreme Court Friday to throw out a provision in the law allowing for voter signature to be removed.

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the Count My Vote initiative that Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox ruled failed to qualify for the November ballot asked the Utah Supreme Court Friday to throw out a provision in the law allowing for voter signatures to be removed.

The petition spells out that if the provision is either declared unconstitutional or determined not to have been followed correctly, the Count My Vote initiative should be on the ballot.

Nearly 3,000 people had their names removed from the initiative, intended to maintain the current candidate nomination process that offers an alternative to the traditional political party caucus and convention system.

As a result, the initiative fell short of the required signatures in three state Senate districts where the required threshold had been exceeded, according to the lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections.

The lieutenant governor's chief of staff, Kirsten Rappleye, had little to say about the legal action taken just before Friday's deadline by former Gov. Mike Leavitt and Count My Vote Executive Chairman Rich McKeown in the Utah Supreme Court.

"It's our policy not to comment on ongoing litigation, however, the attorney general's office has received the filing and will be reviewing it in the coming days," Rappleye said in a statement.

The petition from the Count My Vote leaders, who had previously said they intended to challenge Cox's decision to keep the initiative off the ballot, argues that the signature removal process "stacks the deck" in favor of an initiative's opponents.

The "relative ease" by which an opposition group can remove signatures, especially considering the difficulty of obtaining valid signatures, "imposes an undue burden on the people's constitutional right to initiative legislation," the petition states.

It says voter names and other identifying information submitted to qualify for the ballot serve as a "treasure map" for opponents who can "prevent an initiative from reaching the ballot by aggressively targeting signers" in key districts.

Adding to the unfairness, according to the petition, are requirements on initiative supporters, including holding public hearings before gathering signatures and filing campaign finance reports, that are not imposed on opponents.

Although a prior version of the signature removal process has been upheld by the courts, the petition notes that was before a legislative revision in 2010 eliminated a requirement that the requests be notarized.

The petition says the signature removal requests should have been personally submitted by the voters who signed the initiative, rather than by Count My Vote opponents.

The suit was filed against Cox and the Davis, Utah and Washington county clerks.

Just over 113,000 voters statewide must sign an initiative, and the threshold must be met in at least 26 of the 29 districts. Count My Vote backers said they submitted more than 131,000 validated signatures.

Keep My Voice, a group that had initially intended to circulate a counterinitiative doing away with the 2014 legislative compromise known as SB54 that created the dual path to the primary ballot, targeted the initiative in specific Senate districts.

Another initiative aiming to legalize medical marijuana that was also the subject of an organized effort to remove voter signatures did qualify for the ballot, along with initiatives creating an independent redistricting commission and expanding Medicaid.

Brandon Beckham, Keep My Voice director and co-founder, said he doesn't believe Count My Vote will prevail.

"It's going to be hard for them to make a dent on that," Beckham said of the signature-removal process. "We followed the law. We followed the statute. We abided by everything."

He said the group had been told by the lieutenant governor's office it could collect signature removal forms rather than have voters mail or personally turn in the forms.

Beckham said he believes Keep My Voice had the more difficult job.

"I can tell you it's not easy," he said. The signatures gathered by Count My Vote first had to be analyzed to target voters, Beckham said, who were then contacted by canvassers that went door to door.

Some people balked at filling out a portion of the signature removal form that required them to give the last four digits of their Social Security number and their driver's license information, he said.

"For us, we would like to put more restrictions on the initiative process because there's no accountability," Beckham said.

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Friday's filing is the latest in a long series of skirmishes over SB54, which permits candidates to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot, either in addition to or in place of the caucus and convention nomination process.

The Utah Republican Party has sued the state over the law. Last week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the party's request for a rehearingby the full panel of judges, leaving in place a 2-1 ruling in favor of the state.

The GOP is reviewing its options going forward, which include petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court.