Politics in a Pandemic: KSL Investigators explore how primaries, conventions will adapt

Apr 20, 2020, 10:48 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2023, 3:25 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — While the COVID-19 crisis has overwhelmed local, state and national headlines for months, it has also forced change and created new, unique challenges in the 2020 election cycle.

“Nobody could have guessed, kind of what we’re going into now,” said Derek Brown, chairman of Utah’s Republican Party. “As a political party, that’s what we’re doing is we’re adapting, and the irony is that political parties generally haven’t been very quick to adapt.”

The sentiment was shared by the state’s Democratic Party.

“I think that there are a lot of people really excited about the races that are coming up. Obviously, there’s a presidential race, a gubernatorial race. We’ve got lots of great house and senate races at the local level,” said Jeff Merchant, chair of the Utah Democratic Party. “Everything has been thrown for a loop as a result.”

Many political campaigns the KSL Investigators spoke with indicated the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult and even impossible to continue their campaigns as normal, despite Governor Gary Herbert loosening rules on signature gathering.

The difficulty of signature gathering, however, proved just the beginning.

Political Party Conventions

Neither the Utah Republican Party nor the Utah Democratic Party will host in-person conventions in 2020. Both parties will host virtual conventions instead.

Their goals are the same: simulate a convention as much as possible. But each party is embracing the online task a little differently.

Both parties will upload candidate speeches to their online platforms for delegates to watch before casting their votes.

“For one day, everyone will have a chance to view the speeches of all the candidates [after the Utah GOP releases them all at the same time on Wednesday] and then Thursday morning, the voting will open,” Brown said.

Derek Brown, Utah Republican Party Chair.

Republicans will have about three days to cast their ballot.

The Utah Democratic Party Convention has already been live online for a week and will stay that way through voting on Saturday, giving delegates two weeks to review the speeches and make a decision.

Democrats were expected to open online voting on Saturday at 9 a.m. and delegates will have until the early afternoon to cast their ballot.

“All of our candidates are able to download videos and interact with people on the website. We’re also going to be holding a series of digital town hall meetings so that people can get to know the candidates since normally, that happens on convention day,” Merchant said. “Candidates are having to come up with new and innovative ways to reach those delegates in order to get their votes.”

Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party Chair.

Brown said the issue would have been worse if the convention was canceled altogether, requiring every candidate to appear on a June primary ballot.

The GOP has 4,000 voting delegates and about 700,000 registered party voters, according to Brown.

“It makes a lot more sense for a candidate to try to reach out to and get to know and engage with 4,000 people than 700,000 people,” Brown said.

Another change adopted this year: instead of multiple rounds of voting, as is standard at in-person conventions, both parties will use “Ranked Choice Voting.” Either a single candidate who nets 60% of the vote, or the top two candidates in a specific race will appear on the primary ballot in June.

Every delegate – regardless of party affiliation – will also use an app to cast their votes. Democrats will use an app called ElectionBuddy while Republicans will use the Voatz app. Voatz is the same app that sparked criticism in 2016 in West Virginia when someone tried to hack it.

However, the Utah GOP said it’s not worried.

“It’s far more security than we have ever had for a state convention,” Brown said.

In fact, Brown said the Utah County clerk used it in Nov. 2019 for several municipal elections and it worked “really well.”

After voting is completed, Brown said he has also retained the National Cyber Security Center to monitor the election and audit it after the fact.

Debates Still On, But Format Still “To Be Determined”

Since an in-person primary debate is unlikely, the Utah Debate Commission was exploring various online solutions.

“We just don’t know exactly how we are going to do it, but it will look differently than what we’ve done in the past,” explained Nena Slighting, the executive director of the commission. “We’ve pressed the pause button, but we’re still moving forward as if we’re going to host all of our debates. We’re just having to be really creative in how to produce and execute them.”

Slighting said the commission is looking at all possibilities at this point, but she stressed the importance of debates in the democratic process.

“There’s really nothing like seeing a candidate meet another candidate on the debate stage. It’s not soundbites. It’s not whatever the campaign spin wants it to be,” said Slighting.

The Utah Debate Commission will inevitably know more details about how many primary debates will take place after the conventions’ voting day on Saturday. The commission expected to schedule the debates for the beginning of June.

Six debates will be held between the last week of September and the middle of October for candidates running for governor, attorney general and all four congressional district races in Utah. The University of Utah will also host the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7 at Kingsbury Hall — the first time a national debate will be hosted in Utah.

“The Year Of The Yard Sign”

A long-time veteran of Utah’s political process has a prediction for this unprecedented political year.

“This campaign season could be decided on billboards and lawn signs,” said Scott Howell. “The interface and the ability to communicate it key.”

Howell knows a thing or two about running a political campaign in the Beehive State.

“I’ve run two statewide races, one local race and three legislative races,” Howell said.

In his 2012 race for the U.S. Senate, Howell said his campaign relied on signage to get exposure to voters.

“We literally hired people to drive around. We called it the Howell Mobile,” he said.

(Emily Bingham) (Emily Bingham)

Howell said the campaign signs voters do see stick out although there are fewer cars on Utah’s roads. So if you’re out for a walk getting some fresh-air amid the stay-at-home directive, candidates will get some much-needed exposure.

Howell believed new technologies will also be crucial in 2020.

“Social media and doing virtual town halls – getting people out there to know who you are,” he said.

Exposure isn’t the issue for some incumbents and candidates currently serving in high-profile positions. The COVID-19 crisis is putting these candidates in front of news cameras almost every day – on both the local, state and national levels.

Camera time is arguably a lot more difficult for challengers to successfully obtain during the pandemic – especially without negatively politicizing the pandemic with the hope of getting voters’ attention.

“I’ve told the candidates I’d limit your campaigning and you can’t criticize,” Howell said. “This is not the time for us to criticize.”

Voting By Mail: Utah Is A Step Ahead

The silver lining in all of this? When it comes to voting by mail, Utah is a step ahead of other states.

Because voting by mail is already well-established in the Beehive State, both political party chairs believe the date of the primary will remain June 30.

Meanwhile, “other states are scrambling to figure out how to deal with in-person ballots and in-person voting,” Merchant said.

“A decade ago, we started this process and now basically everyone in the state will get a ballot in the mail,” Brown added. “Everyone has the opportunity to fill out their ballot, send it in and vote, regardless of where you are – regardless of in-person things.”

As for the November general election, it will likely be a game of wait and see.

The KSL Investigators reached out to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson in hopes of learning more about whether any changes or preparations are being made now in the event voting by mail surges.

Swenson said she does not expect a significant increase in the number of by-mail ballots because most voters (between 95% to 98%) are voting by mail anyway.

Swenson also said the number of vote-by-mail primary ballots will be small compared to the number for a November general election.

For example, in the 2018 November General Election, 372,000 people voted by mail. In the 2018 Primary, 110,000 of the total 116,00 turnout voted by mail.

In an email, Swenson wrote, in part:

“Our main system is vote-by-mail and most of our voters utilize that. We are going to be sending out a lot of messages via the media, social media, our website, etc. to voters to update their addresses so we can get a by-mail ballot to them. It is more important than ever that we minimize the number of people we will be serving at in-person voting.”

Last week, the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 3006 on election amendments, allowing counties to either eliminate all in-person voting or if a county chooses to allow in-person voting, to do so through mobile or drive-thru measures only on Election Day.

Swenson said Salt Lake County will conduct Election Day drive-thru or mobile voting for those who did not/do not receive a ballot in the mail.

H.B. 3006 also extended the canvassing period from two to three weeks, so county clerks will have an additional week to process the ballots and finalize the election. Swenson said that will be helpful.


April 10: KSL Investigates: Thousands Of Candidate Signatures Tossed

April 20: One New Death Reported, 144 New COVID-19 Cases Confirmed

Oct. 11, 2019: University Of Utah Will Host Vice Presidential Debate In 2020

Coronavirus Resources

How Do I Prevent It?

The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

How To Get Help

If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth services through your healthcare providers.

Additional Resources

If you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at consumerprotection@utah.gov.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Politics in a Pandemic: KSL Investigators explore how primaries, conventions will adapt