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Herald editorial: Adapting the democratic process in midst of social distancing

By Daily Herald Editorial Board - | Mar 29, 2020

We in the Daily Herald newsroom find ourselves stuck in a novel rut to which readers can also probably relate: We’re terribly sick of articles revolving around the coronavirus, but at the same time, the pandemic is infiltrating every corner of our lives so much that there doesn’t seem to be much of anything currently deemed worthy of an article.

It’s hard to find an area of our lives the current pandemic hasn’t affected. Plenty has been said on supporting local businesses, how to social distance, home schooling, etc., but we haven’t seen much said yet on preserving a crucial element to our society: the democratic process.

The virus has the potential of driving away aspects of the democratic process locally if we don’t figure out and promote ways to adapt. Just as school is still happening, but adapted in home-schooling form instead of inside public school classrooms and university buildings, so should our democratic dealings adjust. We can’t allow the virus to simply sweep it away.

Government employees and elected officials of cities throughout Utah County are currently grappling with how to handle city council and planning commission meetings, which are, of course, traditionally held in-person and are open to the public. We applaud the efforts of city officials coming up with creative solutions to still allow the public to participate in these meetings.

Many cities, such as Mapleton, are making live stream videos of the meetings available to residents. And some are searching for ways to allow the public to comment and participate virtually in meetings rather than just act as voiceless watchers.

Some cities, including Orem, Lehi and Spanish Fork, already live-streamed their public meetings long before the coronavirus pandemic. But for other cities, like Highland, it is a new process, and we hope cities new to live-streaming persevere till citizens can fully participate in this new way.

But to truly adapt the democratic process of participating in public meetings to our current epidemic, we need more than a meeting streaming somewhere on YouTube. We need these virtual public participation options to be made known to the public. Because let’s be honest: There was rarely a well-attended city council meeting in Utah County when we could attend in person. And now that option A, which we’re all more familiar with, is out the window, it’s vitally important the word is spread about this socially distanced option B, lest public participation at these meetings falls away altogether.

Is it the city officials’ job to communicate to their residents about videoed meetings? Yes. We hope Utah County’s officials recognize that they can’t just set up a live stream on some digital platform and expect waves of people to hop on. But more so, it’s our responsibility as citizens to actually participate, and maybe even spread the word about these opportunities ourselves.

Another area of the democratic process hampered by the pandemic is citizens running for office. We’ve got a big election coming up. We’ll be able to vote for a new state governor, new Utah County officials and much more.

But first, all the candidate hopefuls must pass some requirements to get their name on the ballot. One of those requirements is signature-gathering — which, as you can imagine, is a pretty tough feat amid calls for social distancing. Accordingly, Gov. Gary Herbert suspended certain requirements in state statute related to signature-gathering, including the need to gather signatures in-person.

When we first heard the announcement, we thought it was a great change. But then we read the fine print: Although signature forms can be sent back and forth electronically, the law still requires a handwritten signature. So candidates must send electronic copies of signature packet pages to interested voters, who will then have to sign the signature page and email, fax or mail it back to the candidate.

That seems like a whole lot of trouble to get one signature.

We worry this convoluted process might hamper some candidate hopefuls, particularly the ones without previous public attention.

In a statement, Gov. Herbert called this “easing the requirements of the signature gathering process,” but we call it adapting to social distancing unsuccessfully. There must be a less elaborate way for candidates to gather signatures while still preserving signature validation.

It’s hard to see how far down the road this pandemic will last, but we hope our officials are also beginning plans on socially distant ballots, if it comes down to it. As former Utah Gov. and U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman tweeted, “In a national emergency, it’s imperative that the governors office preserves our democracy.”

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