The coronavirus has changed nearly every aspect of daily living, and elections, it turns out, aren’t immune. Utah, like other states, is grappling with the effects of social distancing on signature gathering and voting procedures for its statewide offices. And, like other states, Utah should take action to ensure residents maintain faith in the democratic process.
The issues in Utah’s case arise from the complexity of mingling a deadly virus with the state’s two-track system for parties to select candidates and get them on primary election ballots.
Candidates may go through the traditional caucus and convention route, which requires them to appeal to local delegates, or they may collect a designated number of voter signatures based on the office they are seeking.
Social distancing efforts and a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people has caused local campaigns to cancel stump speeches and rallies, alter door-to-door canvassing and shut down typical call centers. These are inconvenient, but not insurmountable, obstacles to winning a primary election.
However, both major political parties in Utah have canceled caucus night and are working to conduct state conventions online.
The candidates who have voluntarily suspended signature gathering are wise, reasonable and have shown political courage. Ending an activity that is part of a strategy to win is a challenge for would-be officeholders at every level. Too many candidates possess only a vision of themselves in office, not a vision that continuously looks out for the good of the people they hope to lead.
Twelve states and Puerto Rico have already postponed or altered their primary elections. Utah has several paths it could take to follow suit: It could extend signature gathering beyond the April 11 deadline. It could lower the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. Or it could suggest all candidates that registered to get on the ballot through the signature route be placed on the primary ballot. Making such a change, as well as leaving things as they are, is sure to elicit legal challenges.
Too many candidates possess only a vision of themselves in office, not a vision that continuously looks out for the good of the people they hope to lead.
Moreover, any solution that places a large number on the ballot highlights the failure of the Utah State Legislature to act on dealing with the plurality issue. Currently, a candidate does not have to garner 50% of the vote to win a primary contest. While unlikely, it is possible, with seven candidates in a given race, that someone could win with only 15% of the vote. The Legislature must address this.
The caucus and convention path to the primary ballot also poses significant challenges. With an altered convention, and no opportunity to promote new delegates at the now-canceled caucuses, one could argue all candidates who chose the convention path should also be included on the primary ballot.
Any course of action contains problems and questions of fairness for candidates, but the critical guiding question must be, “What is best for voters?”
Whatever the solution, it would currently need to be handled by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and his staff. Cox’s personal proximity to the election as a Republican candidate for governor would make that problematic, therefore it’s proper that his office issued a memo in May of last year detailing the steps his staff would take to shield him from conflicts of interest. We expect that transparency to continue. For voters, certainty in the process and reassuring confidence in the midst of uncertain times supersedes any inconvenience, temporary modification or other considerations.
At a time when voter confidence in government and elected officials is low, Utah’s election must be beyond reproach.
Editor’s note: A previous version suggested Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, also a candidate for governor, recuse himself from decisions related to Utah’s signature gathering process. The lieutenant governor’s office issued a memo last year detailing the ways Cox would avoid a conflict of interest.