Matt Gade, Deseret News
The Utah Attorney General's Office on Tuesday defended a state law allowing voters to take back their signatures of support for ballot initiatives.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Attorney General's Office on Tuesday defended a state law allowing voters to take back their signatures of support for ballot initiatives.

The law does not tip the scale toward initiative foes who urge signers to have their names erased, Tyler Green, Utah's solicitor general, argued in Tuesday court filings. As evidence, he said, three of four initiatives in Utah, including a medical marijuana question that faced a similar signature-removal push, won enough support to make the November ballot.

Backers of the Count My Vote initiative, which failed to clear required hurdles to bring a statewide vote, sued the state in June, arguing that voter names and other identifying information submitted to qualify for the ballot essentially became a treasure map for opponents who can target signers in key areas.

Count My Vote seeks to make sure political candidates can continue to earn spots on primary ballots by gathering signatures without winning approval of party delegates. In court documents, its leaders asked the Utah Supreme Court to toss a provision that permitted thousands of names to be removed from their petition amid an email and door-knocking push by an opposition group.

The court has yet to issue a decision in the case.

In the documents filed late Tuesday, Green argued that "the state obviously shares (Count My Vote's) desire that elections and initiatives be fair... but that also includes fairness for initiative signers" who retain the right to withdraw their names before a state-imposed deadline.

What's more, if the court were to rule unconstitutional and strike several pieces of the law that Count My Vote argues are unfair, it would throw Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox's office, which oversees elections in Utah, into chaos as it tries to come up with new rules ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline to certify ballots, Green said.

In May, Cox ruled that the Count My Vote did not qualify for the November ballot.

The group had collected more than 131,000 validated names, above the required 113,000, according to Cox's office. But nearly 3,000 asked for their names to be removed. The initiative ultimately fell short of required thresholds in six state Senate districts. Under the law, it could only make the ballot if it met the signature level in 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts.

The voters who signed off on the initiative were later emailed and visited by canvassers from Keep My Voice, which wants to keep the caucus and convention system but do away with signature gathering. The group targeted Utah, Davis and Washington counties, urging voters to take back their support for the initiative.

Count My Vote backers also argued the signature removal requests should have been turned in directly by the voters who signed the initiative, rather than by opponents. If the court agrees, the group argues, the measure should appear on the November ballot.

But Green in Tuesday court filings said the law doesn't require voters to show up in person or write a letter asking for their names to be scrubbed. Utah lawmakers could create more specific rules for name-removal efforts, and "it might even be good policy for the Legislature to do so," but the fact that it hasn't yet does not unfairly affect initiatives, he said.

Brandon Beckham, Keep My Voice director and co-founder, has said the lieutenant governor's office told his group it could to collect signature removal forms. Beckham said Tuesday that Green's argument of a 75 percent success rate among the four initiatives "makes a good point" and the filing was what he expected.

Count My Vote's executive chairman did not immediately respond to a message late Tuesday.

In addition to Cox's office, the suit also was filed against Davis, Utah and Washington county clerks. Davis and Washington counties have said in court documents that the suit relates to state law and not to county government. Utah County officers said in court documents that they followed advice from Cox's office when they turned in signature-removal forms.

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The removal process has been upheld by the courts in the past, but that was before the Legislature in 2010 did away with a requirement that the requests be notarized, Count My Vote noted in court documents. Green said that lawmakers at the time believed the notary requirement was too much of a burden on voters' right to remove their signatures, so they replaced it with a list of personal information, including an address, the last four digits of their Social Security number and a driver license or ID card number.

A spokesman for Cox's office said two officials who could speak about the case were out of town and not available to comment.