Bob Bernick’s notebook: Gov. Herbert has an obligation to make sure the election is fair in the wake of coronavirus pandemic

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Now that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert has issued what amounts to a stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus, he has a big political decision to make: To be fair to all candidates’ signature-gathering efforts, will he extend every major election deadline for a month — moving the late-June primary to the end of July, move county and state conventions dates and the rapidly-approaching candidate signature deadline?

Or, if he won’t do that, will he put ALL properly filed candidates on the primary party ballots?

All of them, regardless of whether they gathered the proper number of signatures or come out of party county and state conventions.

Politically speaking, what Herbert — who is not running for re-election this year — does about the 2020 spring/summer election season may well define his governorship.

Will he think more about voters, of all parties?

Or will he think more about NOT acting to make sure these candidates’ nomination runs to the primary election are fair and equitable?

Herbert has shown himself a number of times to be a cautious leader. It has been his political legacy — sometimes to his benefit, sometimes to his detriment.

But now is not a time for caution. As in other states and the nation, Utah has seen the coronavirus overtake political leaders.

And their reactions to the virus has, in turn, overtaken the election process this year.

The New York Times reported this weekend how various states are changing their election deadlines/schedules in an effort to have fair and complete elections this spring and summer.

And so, Herbert should act, not only to be fair to candidates and process, but to ensure that INACTION on his part doesn’t lead to this possibility: A stain on the 2020 elections — especially the gubernatorial primary elections.

While not making a formal endorsement, Herbert clearly favors his lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox, to be the next governor. He gave Cox $50,000 from the governor’s PAC. And he’s touted Cox’s abilities often, given Cox important public responsibilities — like overseeing the state’s coronavirus effort.

All that is fine.

All that is appropriate. He has a right to pick his man.

But now that Herbert has, in fighting the overriding problem of this decade — a pandemic that could cost hundreds of Utahns their lives — the governor should step up to the issue of SB54’s dual candidate route.

If one route — signature-gathering — really can’t be fulfilled because of his “Stay-home, Stay-safe” initiative, he should ensure that those candidates get a fair chance to appear on primary ballots.

If he’s harmed the signature-gathering route — even for the more-important public health goal — then he has a responsibility to the would-be voters who want those candidates on the ballot.

Polling, by’s Y2 and other firms, shows that former former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman has between 27-33 percent of the GOP vote.

There are about 650,000 registered Republicans in Utah — who can vote in the party’s closed primary (paid for and run by the state).

A third of those numbers equals roughly 200,000 GOP voters.

But Huntsman may not make the April 10 signature gathering deadline with 28,000 verified Republican voter signatures. Other down-ballot candidates may not make their lower number of required signatures, as well.

If state and local governments on the one hand make it harder for Huntsman and other signature-gathering candidates to reach SB54 signature levels, then Herbert — who has the state’s “emergency powers authority,” has a responsibility — a moral duty — to give time to make things right.

Yes, the governor has issued a change, I believe a weak one, in technical signature-gathering procedures.

But that clearly is not enough to ensure a fair shot at the primary ballot under SB54’s deadlines.

At very least, we need a month’s delay on all spring election deadlines, including moving the primary to late July. Other states have delayed primary elections.

If not that, the governor needs to put all filed candidates on the primary ballots — an admitted extreme action. But I believe this pandemic calls for extreme action.

Or may the GOP 2020 primary election be tainted?

Will 200,000 voters’ preference in the governor’s race be ignored?

Let’s hope not. Utah deserves better than that.