Utah’s in-person caucus-convention system is a casualty of the coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The Utah Republican Party's 2019 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University in Orem on May 4, 2019.

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Life once was a treat for delegates to state political conventions. Some candidates rented theaters to woo them with movies and popcorn. Others treated them to sports and hot dogs. Delegates received constant invitations to candidate dinners.

And candidates wove elaborate strategies on how to elect supporters as delegates during neighborhood caucus meetings scattered around the state.

The coronavirus threat changed all that now.

Republicans and Democrats canceled or postponed their March 24 caucuses because of limitations on large meetings. They announced that delegates elected two years ago will simply continue to serve, and are developing how to replace a few who moved or do not want to stay on.

They also canceled in-person state and county conventions in April. Democrats currently are planning what they call “drive-by balloting,” where delegates with credentials may drop off ballots. Republicans are planning probably an online state convention and voting.

And maybe the biggest change is that candidates are dumping most plans for personal delegate meetings, which have become potentially dangerous or even deadly. They are turning to technology instead.

“We have to deal with the new reality that it’s not safe for us to meet in large groups,” said Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, who is running for the Republican nomination for Utah attorney general against incumbent Sean Reyes.

“Maybe this actually has the potential of deepening the process and improving it,” Leavitt said. Instead of movies, sports and endless treats, “This gives us an opportunity to let some of the more superficial parts of a campaign fall away and deal more substantively with the issues.”

Reyes says he understand and supports the need for change, but laments it a bit.

“It was through the caucus convention process that I was able to meet in-person at cottage, town and city hall meetings with state delegates statewide," which helped him win, he said. Now, "I look forward even with the current restrictions to meaningful interaction with delegates on a virtual basis.”

Reyes and Leavitt both decided against trying to qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures. Instead, they are relying on the alternate caucus-convention route — and they hope state delegates will put them on the ballot. So changes in caucuses and conventions are especially important to such candidates.

GOP gubernatorial candidates Aimee Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County Council member, and former House Speaker Greg Hughes are also pursuing just the caucus-convention route.

“I’m really bummed that I can’t work to elect some of my own delegates,” Winder Newton said, but she agrees with decisions to keep people safe by postponing caucuses.

Hughes adds, “Having delegates already seated is a very, very good thing. Having a remote convention is a very, very good thing. Yes, I think it is changing our strategy. And is it the best thing for me? No.”

Hughes explains, “I think I do better with personal contact. I enjoy being with people and talking and answering questions. But we’re nimble, and we will adjust.”

Similarly, Winder Newton said she is disappointed that she must now avoid most personal meetings.

“I love meeting with people,” she said. “That face-to-face meeting with a large group of people is one of my favorite parts of campaigning. But I want to keep people safe and I feel strongly that we need to cancel those meetings for the time being.”

Hughes said he agrees with changes made so far, but worries about rumblings that some in the party may push to extend deadlines for qualifying by collecting signatures — because going door to door now may also be considered dangerous.

He opposes any extension, saying that candidate Thomas Wright already managed to collect enough signatures to appear on the ballot — so no extension for others should be needed, and they all can compete at the convention if needs be.

Meanwhile, candidates are turning to technology to reach delegates. They all mention using video conferencing, Facebook live discussions, conference phone calls, individual calls and more.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown and Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant both say they are working on ways to help connect candidates in contested races with delegates.

They say options considered include recording speeches from candidates to post online, and making the party’s video and audio conferencing available to all candidates in contested races — even in small county races.

“This is sort of forcing the party to incorporate technology into the process in a way it never has before,” Brown said. His GOP convention will likely be online, he said, with recorded speeches and voting online.

That will be “ranked choice” voting, where people will list their first, second, third, etc., choice in a race. Candidates with the lowest totals will be eliminated, and other choices substituted until winners emerge.

Democrats are also considering an online meeting, recorded or written messages, or perhaps other alternatives — along with “drive-by” voting, Merchant said. “This is going to be a very different type of election season.”