Tribune Editorial: Keep ‘Available Jones’ out of Utah elections

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Both the spirit of democracy and the legitimate mandate to rule are best served by an electoral system that involves as many people as possible in the process of selecting our political leaders.

Utah has some problems in that regard.

On the plus side, Utah is among the nation’s leaders in adopting a universal vote-by-mail system. It has proven to be a safe and effective way of bringing more people into the process.

That’s always a good thing, especially when the government that is elected, as it always does, has to turn around and ask those same people to pay taxes, obey laws or otherwise cooperate in the administration of a democracy.

It’s not the government that is in charge. It is our government.

The down side is just about everything that happens up to the day those mail ballots go out. A system that is as devoted as ours is to excluding so many people from becoming viable candidates goes a long way to cheapen the value of those easily cast ballots.

One recent example is the story of how Gov. Gary Herbert met privately with one of the Republicans running to replace him, businessman and former state Republican Chairman Thomas Wright, with the lame duck governor apparently hoping to make the hopeful an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Drop out, Herbert is supposed to have said to Wright. You probably can’t win this four-way contest anyway, and it would be better if you quit now, threw your support to Lt. Gov. (and Herbert’s preferred candidate) Spencer Cox, and came back to challenge U.S. Sen. Mike Lee in two years.

Stories diverge on whether Herbert made Wright a specific offer of financial support for the Senate campaign he was encouraging. Which kind of matters because, under Utah law, that would sort of amount to a crime.

Even if nothing illegal was going on, it is all just another example of how “Available Jones” Herbert, not alone among politicians, sees governing as something that is done in private deals, not in public.

Herbert can use his gubernatorial office to advance his political agenda. But he shouldn’t meddle in our elections. That sacred space is reserved for the voters.

Whatever was really said or offered, Wright is still in the governor’s race.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Jim Dabakis, once chairman of the Utah Democratic Party is leading a call for Democrats and independents to register as Republicans so they can vote in the June 30 primary.

The idea is to get more voters into the Republican pool to nudge the result away from the candidate Dabakis sees as the most objectionable, former House Speaker and proudest supporter of Donald Trump Greg Hughes.

The underlying assumption is that, in Utah, the winner of the Republican primary, especially in statewide races, will coast to victory in November. So, if voters want to have any say in the matter, they have to vote in that primary, not wait for a nearly pointless general election.

Republicans, of course, are crying foul. If Democrats want a shot at winning elections, they might well argue, they should organize a better party and field better candidates. That’s not wrong, but it does leave the people of Utah paying the price for living in a one-party state.

With great power comes great responsibility. Or, at least, it should.

Republicans dominate the political landscape of Utah to a degree that any sense of fair play demands that the party be as open as possible to as many people — candidates and voters — as possible.

All this close-to-the-vest behavior — secret schemes to get candidates to drop out, party leaders fighting the slow the loss of power once held by the narrow caucus and convention system — only serves to keep power vested in a few people who are members of a self-perpetuating clique.

That’s not democracy. And it shouldn’t be Republicanism, either.