But what about helping democracy?
The governor of Ohio decided this week to postpone that state’s primary election, which was supposed to happen Tuesday. Could Utah’s governor step in and change the signature-gathering process to help candidates gain access to the state’s June primary ballots? After all, it’s not safe right now for people to go door-to-door asking for signatures, and it’s not safe for people who answer the door to use pens that might have been touched by many other hands
State law allows people to get on the ballot one of two ways. They can win the approval of delegates to their party convention, or they can collect signatures on petitions. If you want to become governor, you need 28,000 of these from registered party members.
So far, three candidates have submitted these. One is the current lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, whose office manages elections in the state.
To at least one candidate, this is a problem.
“The person in charge is benefitting from the system,” candidate Jan Garbett told me Tuesday. She is asking for a change in the rules. Reduce the number of required signatures to 10% of the current number, or 2,800. Then put a halt to all signature gathering at the end of this week in the name of public health. State and local governments have closed just about everything else.
She and some other candidates met with state elections director Justin Lee on Tuesday to make their case.
Lee told me the lieutenant governor has some emergency powers under the law, but not when it comes to changing signature gathering. He also said he is in close contact with attorneys assigned to the office to make sure there is a proper distance between candidate Cox and the legal issues concerning elections.
Herbert probably could issue an executive order changing the process. He already issued an order allowing candidates to send designated representatives to officially declare their candidacy, rather than doing so in person.
But here’s where the worms start coming out of the can.
Some have suggested instituting an online petition process. There isn’t time. “We would need a process or an app or something, which we don’t have,” Lee said.
As to the idea of reducing the required number of signatures, that would raise fairness issues, especially for those who had to collect the full 28,000.
Unfortunately, however, even doing nothing raises fairness issues. The remaining candidates didn’t cause COVID-19. Why should it ruin their chances?
Lowering the threshold might revive two candidates, Jeff Burningham and Aimee Newton Winder, who abandoned their petitions and are now focusing on convention delegates, instead.
Burningham stopped his petitions out of respect to public health. Newton’s concerns have more to do with the process, itself.
Gathering signatures, she told me, takes too much money. You have to hire a company that pays signature-gatherers. Because three candidates already turned in petitions, it was hard to find registered party members who hadn’t already signed a petition for someone else.
The process, she said, isn’t about finding who has the most public support.
“This is about who has the most money. To me, there’s no correlation between what the public wants and the signatures.”
Now the worms are really marching out of that can.
The two-option process for getting on the ballot was part of a delicate, and not all together secure, compromise between the Republican Party and organizers of a petition drive that sought to do away with the caucus/convention system.
Not many people have the stomach to tinker with this again, although the 28,000 signature requirement probably is too high for a state with only about 800,000 Republican voters, especially when six people are out looking.
Lee said his office is finding a lot of duplicate signatures this year; something it hasn’t encountered much before, probably because “we have dynamics we haven’t seen before.”
Not long ago, it looked as if we might have as many as seven gubernatorial candidates on June’s primary ballot. Given today’s most unusual circumstances, it may be up to the governor to decide whether that really happens.