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Utah's Political Processes Adapt To Coronavirus Concerns

Photo of Jeff Burningham writing on a piece of paper.
Sonja Hutson
Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham files his intent to gather signatures at the elections office in the state Capitol on Jan. 2.

SALT LAKE CITY — On the steps of the state Capitol Friday morning, gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham announced that his campaign would stop collecting the 28,000 signatures needed to secure a place on November’s ballot.

Not because he’s dropping out, but because he doesn’t want his campaign staff and volunteers going door to door. 

“I just can’t in good conscience send my team and volunteers out there potentially spreading the virus, potentially harming someone else,” Burningham said.

Burningham’s announcement comes on the heels of measures the Governor’s Office has implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Utah. They range from limiting the size of public gatherings to shifting university classes online.

But his campaign isn’t the only one adapting in the face of coronavirus concerns. 

Former Utah Republican Party Chair Thomas Wright and Utah Congressman Rob Bishop announced on Wednesday that they have suspended future town hall events and will instead be shifting their voter outreach online.

Former Speaker of the House Greg Hughes discouraged voters who had flu-like symptoms, other health issues or are over 60 years-old from attending his town hall event in St. George on Thursday night. He did, however, move forward with the event in person rather than opt for digital alternatives.

Such changes represent unprecedented moves in the face of a public health crisis, said Tim Chambless, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Utah.

Chambless has worked on over 30 campaigns in the Beehive state and said that direct interactions with candidates are critical to driving voter turnout.

“It's the difference between being able to look somebody in the eye, talk to them face to face, exchange handshakes and how we feel when we’re watching television,” he said. “The candidate who knocks on doors and meets with people in the neighborhoods. These are the people who usually win.” 

Both the Republican and Democratic parties in Utah have canceled their in-person conventions in April.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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