Guaranteeing free and fair elections is the most fundamental service a state government offers. The longer we are in the running for governor and lieutenant governor, the clearer we see how our current state leaders are failing to keep this year’s election process free and fair amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even during the best of times, Utah has an absurdly complicated process for nominating candidates. Hopeful candidates must either petition their way onto the primary ballot by gathering signatures or gain the support of enough of their party’s convention delegates to be nominated at convention. Some candidates try to do both. Each of these pathways has its benefits and drawbacks, but they are the law. To keep Utah’s elections free and fair elections, our state government must keep both of these options open and viable for all candidates who choose to use them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended both pathways. And unless the governor takes action, neither will be as free or as fair as they should.
In normal years, candidates attempting to take the caucus/convention route would have their supporters attend neighborhood caucuses and attempt to be elected as delegates to their party’s state convention. But, with COVID-19, the 2020 caucuses were cancelled and political parties have been allowed to re-certify convention delegates elected at caucus in 2018.
The Republican convention itself will be held online, depriving candidates of the opportunity to persuade delegates in person. Thus, candidates are not free to fully participate in the convention process, and neither are party members. This makes the convention process unfair to all the candidates who chose to pursue it.
Things are even worse for candidates like us, who are trying to gather signatures. Normally, we would have until two weeks before the state party conventions at the end of April to acquire the required number of signatures. Because of Utah’s arcane rules for verifying petition signatures, the only realistic method to collect them is door-to-door canvassing. But social distancing — which we should all be practicing to prevent spreading the coronavirus — makes door-to-door canvassing literally impossible.
These measures mean candidates are not free to collect signatures for the entire time normally allowed. Yet our governor hasn’t changed the number of required signatures to reflect this truncated timeframe. All he’s done is a minor adjustment in initial verification, which still requires campaigns to get a physical copy of petition documents to voters somehow. Changing the timer of the game without significantly changing other rules to compensate makes the process unfair.
Contrast this inaction with New York, the state hardest hit by COVID-19 thus far. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recognized in mid-March that door-to-door signature gathering would have to stop for public health reasons. He used his emergency powers to shut down petition canvassing two weeks early. To keep the process fair, he also reduced the number of signatures needed by 70 percent. Given this example, we have to ask why Gov. Gary Herbert is ignoring the fact that Utah’s 2020 elections are now less free and less fair than New York’s.
Our campaign has made every effort to creatively offer Beehive State voters the chance to participate in the nominating process despite social distancing. We hope it will be enough. Before we stopped going door-to-door, we were on track to make it onto the primary ballot. We know there are other campaigns across Utah in the same predicament — they would have made the primary ballot in a normal election year but may well be excluded this year.
Let us repeat: Social distancing is necessary. But this unfair electoral result is not.
Herbert should recognize COVID-19 as a threat to our elections and use his emergency powers to place all candidates who have made a good-faith efforts to comply with election law on the primary ballot. It’s the only way to make the 2020 election free and fair again. And Utahns should accept nothing less than a free and fair election.
Jan Garbett is a Utah businesswoman, mother of eight, and Republican candidate for Utah governor.
Joe Jarvis, M.D., is a public health professional and her lieutenant governor running mate. You can find out more about them at people4jan.com.