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Utah still needs to fix its democracy

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. participate in a gubernatorial debate during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The most popular politician in Utah is running for governor this year, and he’s having trouble getting on the ballot.

If you thought we had fixed democracy in Utah, this ought to give you pause.

Remember 2004? That was the year Gov. Olene Walker failed to make it onto the ballot — the first time that had happened to an incumbent Utah governor — because she was rejected by state convention delegates. She left office with an 87% approval rating, and polls showed she probably would have been reelected.

Now, for you fans of irony, we have this: One of the men convention delegates chose that year over Walker, Jon Huntsman Jr., is narrowly ahead in the polls this year, but he may not make it to the ballot.

A recent poll by Utahpolicy.com gave Huntsman the highest popularity of any politician in the state, at 66%. This was slightly higher than the current governor, Gary Herbert, with 64%.

Unlike in ’04, however, Huntsman doesn’t have to rely on convention delegates this year. If he did, he probably wouldn’t make the ballot, just like Walker 16 years ago. Utah now has an alternative way to qualify, through signatures on petitions. But the Huntsman campaign has so far had trouble getting enough valid ones to make it. He needs 28,000.

The former governor turned in just over 36,000 but, according to figures reported by Utahpolicy.com, only 16,459 were certified as valid. Most of the disqualified names belonged to people who either weren’t registered Republicans (a requirement), or who weren’t registered to vote at all (another requirement). A relatively small number, 2,436, belonged to people who already had signed a petition for another candidate in the race. The law allows people to sign only for one candidate.

My analysis shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of Huntsman. The poll numbers speak for themselves. The most recent surveys find him with a slight lead over current Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

But under the petition rules, you’re only as good as your signature gatherers. It pays to get the best, at a cost, or to instruct the people you have carefully on what to ask and what to avoid.

Thomas Wright’s campaign was the first to qualify for the ballot. The state elections office told me Wright turned in just over 34,000 signatures and had an extremely high validity rate. Cox’s campaign was the second to qualify, turning in around 39,000, with only a little more than a quarter deemed invalid.

But now the state is under a virtual lockdown because of the novel coronavirus, making door-to-door signature gathering almost impossible. Herbert issued an executive order allowing candidates to email copies of petitions to people, who then can sign them and either fax, mail or email them back to the campaigns.

As a rule of thumb, however, it’s never good to force your older supporters to find tech support in order to help the campaign.

Larger questions loom. Has Utah settled on a nominating system, especially in the party that dominates state politics, that reflects the wishes of most voters? Has it found an orderly way to reflect what is a surprisingly elusive and difficult concept — democracy? Should candidates be forced to pay professional signature gatherers in order to qualify?

Political operatives I spoke to run the gamut on this one. Some say the ones who ran into problems because of the pandemic (this includes other candidates besides Huntsman) should have been better organized. Candidates who appeal to convention delegates say it costs them money, as well, to do so effectively, and the coronavirus has made their task harder. This year’s convention will be conducted virtually.

Others say political contests should not be decided by who can hire the best signature gathering firms.

The current two-method process for making the ballot was a compromise between those who wanted to preserve the caucus/convention nominating system and those who wanted to abolish it because they believed it didn’t reflect the wishes of rank-and-file party members.

But convention supporters agreed to the compromise because it required so many petition signatures, and with such strict rules, that candidates would be pushed back toward the convention system.

That seems to be what is happening.

It’s true that everyone entered the race knowing the rules. It’s also true that, with about 800,000 registered Republicans statewide, several candidates should be able to qualify. The virus was an unforeseen factor in this year’s race, but fundamental rules shouldn’t be changed in the middle of a campaign season.

But, while Huntsman may yet find the signatures he needs to qualify, it is also true that Utah still has a system that offers no guarantees to candidates who poll well.