Robert Gehrke: How do we run fair elections in the age of coronavirus? We need a better solution.

Robert Gehrke

In 1918, the entire world was gripped by the worst disease outbreak in human history, one that claimed somewhere between 28 million and, by some estimates, as many as 100 million lives.

Yet, amid that carnage, the United States managed to hold its regular midterm election. Democracy is resilient, but given weeks and more likely months of disruption due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we will need to find new ways to make it flexible.

Already, Republicans and Democrats in Utah scrapped their neighborhood caucus nights, designed to elect delegates, and are carrying forward the delegates from 2018.

The Republican state convention is being moved to a digital platform, while the Democrats are opting for “drive-by” balloting. These conventions are but one way to make the primary ballot. The other way — signature gathering — is under even more duress.

On Wednesday, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant called on candidates to stop gathering signatures (although most had). On the Republican side, gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham stopped signature gathering, and candidates for other offices have as well. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox suspended his campaign activities.

At a time when candidates would normally be traveling the state, the last thing voters want to do is meet face-to-face. Instead, tele-town halls and virtual meetings are the name of the game. Social media is playing a bigger role than we’ve ever seen.

“The idea of retail politics, at least for this election, is probably dead,” Merchant said.

The national candidates are in the same boat. Instead of the big arena-filling rallies and airport pop-ins we’re used to, we saw the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden struggle with some online addresses this week.

In terms of actually voting, Utah’s vote-by-mail system has proven effective and, in fact, Nevada is moving in that direction, and other states will likely follow.

So, yes, democracy appears able to survive the outbreak.

The more immediate problem is the disruption it has caused for candidates trying to get on the ballot. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jan Garbett is pressing the governor to use his emergency powers to change the process so she is not faced with the choice of suspending signature gathering — and likely her campaign — or endangering the public.

If changes aren’t made, Garbett is expected to sue Gov. Gary Herbert and Cox. And while Garbett is the most vocal candidate, it’s former Gov. Jon Huntsman who has the most riding on the outcome — potentially his entire campaign.

Cox submitted enough signatures to be on the ballot; so has former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. Huntsman is nearly 12,000 short and his campaign has slim chances of closing the gap by the April 11 deadline.

In hindsight, you could say Huntsman and Garbett and other candidates should have started sooner. It is easy to say, sorry, those are the breaks, pal. Pandemics happen.

But is that the best solution? Is that fair not only for the candidates but for the voters?

Things get tricky for me here, because, as you may know, Huntsman’s brother, Paul, is the owner of The Salt Lake Tribune. Still, as always, I’ll try to be even-handed.

Would we say, “Those are the breaks, pal?” if an alien invasion interrupted the Republican nominating convention? Or an earthquake? Or would we try to find a fair way to let the party choose its candidates (once the aliens leave)?

I think we’d try to follow the spirit of the law. Unfortunately, the options on the table right now aren’t great.

• Extend the signature-gathering period: This doesn’t work because clerks need time to validate signatures and the state has to meet federal deadlines leading up to the June 30 primary. Plus, the virus isn’t going to vanish if we give it a couple extra weeks.

• Allow electronic signatures: We should already do this, but state law prohibits e-signatures on candidate petitions. Plus, there’s no system in place to collect and verify them.

• Let more candidates out of convention: Instead of the top one or two candidates advancing, let anyone over 25% through to the primary. That way as many as three could advance. The snag is it would require a change to party rules, which the party probably can’t — and almost certainly won’t — do.

The best option would be to just put all the candidates on the primary ballot and let voters decide.

The party, naturally, doesn’t like this one. Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown told me Wednesday that, from his perspective, candidates should roll the dice with the delegates at convention.

That’s not ideal either, since this same group of delegates chose Mike Kennedy over Mitt Romney in 2018 before Romney trounced Kennedy by 40 points in a primary. The point being, these delegates don’t represent mainstream Republicans.

Regardless, any change mid-game isn’t exactly fair to the other candidates in the race.

So where do we end up? Good question.

Brown thinks — and I agree — that Herbert likely won’t intervene.

“The governor has to decide between defending a lawsuit over changing the rules in the middle of the game, or defending a lawsuit [by Garbett] for not changing the law,” Brown said, “and I think the latter is the easier to defend.”

That means we’re probably headed to the courts. And unless a federal judge is willing to take some fairly major steps to revise Utah law, we might see something unfathomable a couple months ago: Huntsman — the front-runner in the most recent polls — not making it to the June primary.