Tribune Editorial: How a crisis can build democracy

In times of crisis, there can be a widespread urge to abandon the niceties of democracy in favor of a — temporary — imposition of authoritarianism.

It is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Greatest Generation that, through global depression and world war, neither Britain nor America ever skipped an election. And never voted in a government that refused to leave.

As Utah, the United States and the world deal with the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, our traditions of democracy and free elections may be tested as never before. Fortunately, advances in technology and preexisting trends in opening up access to the ballot — specifically, voting by mail — can help us through this.

In fact, in Utah, this frightening state of affairs may leave us with an opportunity to expand democracy rather than contract it.

Just as candidates for Utah governor and other public offices were to be wrapping up their petition drives, and the main political parties were preparing for their neighborhood caucuses and state conventions, the arrival of the coronavirus epidemic upset everything.

The caucuses were, wisely, canceled. Utah Democrats and Republicans have been making plans to replace their conventions with drop-off balloting or electronic voting.

But that doesn’t help the candidates who were circulating petitions in their attempts to be listed on the June 30 primary election ballots. Going door-to-door or approaching strangers in parking lots or at transit stops became not just useless but dangerous.

The sudden end to petition season threatens to deny several candidates for governor, and numerous candidates for other offices, a chance to stand before the voters. And deny the voters their right to make their choice from the full number of hopefuls.

Suggested work-arounds include delaying deadlines, or even putting back the primary, allowing people to sign candidate petitions electronically and skipping both the convention and petition parts of the process and going straight to the primary, with all declared candidates on the ballot.

It is that last idea that is the best for both candidates and for voters.

Democracy is no stranger to multi-party elections or to primaries with a handful of candidates. In some places, a simple plurality of the vote is enough to win. In others, an outcome where no candidate polls more than 50% leads to a run-off of the top two finishers. Both work. But, in the current environment, staging a run-off would be more than the system could handle.

So now is the time for Gov. Gary Herbert to change the rules. Not to amass more power for himself — which he is not interested in doing anyway — but to enhance democracy by ordering a primary election — by mail — in which all declared candidates compete.

No conventions. No petitions. No violation of the emergency rules of social distancing and self-isolation. But more voting by more people. More democracy.

If we run the 2020 primary elections in that manner, we may find that it works so well that we want to do it that way all the time.