Candidates for public office in Utah who intend to earn a spot on the primary ballot by gathering signatures will have an easier time doing so — while still practicing social distancing — after Gov. Gary Herbert suspended certain requirements in state statute related to signature-gathering.

Herbert issued an executive order on Thursday suspending “the requirement that petition packets be bound prior to circulation and that a circulator personally witness each signature,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.

The order makes it so candidates no longer have to go door-to-door or make other efforts to gather signatures physically.

Effective until the coronavirus pandemic passes, candidates can now send electronic copies of signature packet pages to interested voters, who may sign the signature page and email, fax or mail it back to the candidate.

“The candidate may assemble any returned signature pages and then submit the signature packet to the election officer in-person or via denatured agent,” according to the governor’s office.

Although signature forms can be sent back and forth electronically, the law still requires a handwritten signature, state elections director Justin Lee said in a memorandum on Thursday, meaning those intending to sign would need to print and rescan signatures forms.

“This is a matter of fairness and preserving the integrity of our election process in these unusual times,” Herbert said in a written statement. “By easing the requirements of the signature gathering process, but requiring that signatures be verified by the State after submission, this order strikes the appropriate balance in preserving a signature gathering path to the ballot, even as Utahns follow orders and recommendations regarding social distancing.”

Lee said signature pages must still be collected by candidates before being submitted to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office or county clerk offices.

Before Herbert issued the executive order, some candidates complained that state laws regarding signature-gathering required them to choose between campaigning and keeping the public safe.

On Monday, former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who is running for governor with Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi as his running mate, called on the state to allow signatures to be collected electronically during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Every Utah citizen should be concerned about ballot access,” Huntsman tweeted. “When everything has been upended with #COVID--19, we too need to change how we proceed to make sure it’s a fair & honest primary. In a national emergency, it’s imperative that the governors office preserves our democracy.”

Jan Garbett, who is running for governor as a Republican, asked Herbert to “lessen or suspend signature gathering as a requirement to get on the primary ballot.”

Other gubernatorial candidates, including Provo entrepreneur Jeff Burningham and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, have already suspended their efforts to gather signatures.

Candidates for governor need to gather at least 28,000 valid signatures to be placed on a primary ballot, while state Senate and House candidates are required to get 2,000 and 1,000 signatures, respectively.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and running mate Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, already crossed the signature threshold, according to the Utah election office, along with Thomas Wright and running mate U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

On Wednesday, Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge tweeted that “changing the rules now would be incredibly unfair” to candidates that had already gathered the required number of signatures.

“I support changes to ballot access for future primaries, but doing so in the middle of this contest would be wrong,” tweeted Ainge.

Herbert said that Cox, whose office oversees elections, was not involved in the decision to issue the executive order.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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