SALT LAKE CITY — Like just about everything else in Utah’s entirely by-mail primary election, candidates’ watch parties on Tuesday are being affected by COVID-19.
Big events packed with supporters eager to celebrate a victory are being replaced as virus cases continue to spike with smaller, invitation-only gatherings in private homes and backyards, campaign headquarters or even a drive-in movie theater to accommodate social distancing — or are just being eliminated altogether.
Those who are holding more limited watch parties are stocking up on hand sanitizer and face masks along with the usual campaign signs, soft drinks and snacks. They’re also figuring out how to keep supporters entertained for an extra two hours after the polls close at 8 p.m. because of a required delay in releasing initial election results.
Final results are expected to take days if not weeks in some close races, including in the Republican gubernatorial and 4th Congressional District primaries, as ballots are being quarantined for 24 hours or more and social distancing protocols are limiting the number of election workers doing the counting.
Still, most candidates are doing something Tuesday night to mark the end of a primary election season that started before the deadly coronavirus hit the state and forced them to substitute appearances via video conferencing and other social media for traditional campaigning.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox — who’s running for the GOP nomination for governor against former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — considered not holding an event at all before deciding on an invitation-only gathering at a Sanpete County drive-in.
“They wanted to be near family and friends, but be extremely careful with social distancing. This gives supporters an opportunity to be part of election night but stay in their own cars and stay safe,” Cox campaign spokeswoman Heather Barney said.
Although it’s “Modern Cowboy” week at Mt. Pleasant’s Basin Drive-In Theater, Barney said video from the campaign trail will be shown until results are available. She said invitees will be instructed to bring a face mask and practice social distancing. Cox was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert to head the administration’s response to the virus.
Huntsman, who was quarantined with COVID-19 until just recently, isn’t “having a big election night event but there will be several smaller gatherings that the governor will visit briefly throughout the day/night” on Tuesday, according to his campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley.
Masks are being advised for evening media interviews at the Huntsman campaign headquarters in the Salt Lake Hardware Building.
Hughes, an outspoken opponent of measures taken to stop the spread of the virus, will hold a gathering at the Centerville home of a supporter. Plans for the event to be in Salt Lake County were dropped, said his campaign manager, Greg Hartley, after the county mandated the wearing of masks last weekend.
Hartley said the number of guests will be limited to what will mainly be an outdoor gathering, with a Facebook Live option available. “We always have a blurb for our events that encourages if you’re sick, have symptoms or high risk, please stay home, bring masks if you’d like,” he said, adding masks and hand sanitizer will be available Tuesday.
Wright has said he expects to hold a small event in Salt Lake City.
Voters who aren’t involved in the campaigns probably won’t pay attention to the election night watch party differences, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said, even if they don’t see candidates delivering victory or concession speeches in front of a crowded room on the TV news.
That’s because campaigning has already been unusual under the virus restrictions, relying more on TV commercials for the governor’s race and a few others, Burbank said, so voters understand these “are just the times we’re in at the moment.”
What will drive that home, he said, is the likelihood that it’s going to be awhile before voters know who won in a number of races.
On election night, a new state law for the primary that was put in place in April requires that results usually made available right after the polls close be held until 10 p.m., since voters are being allowed to send in ballots postmarked as late as midnight Tuesday, instead of by the day before the election.
Election officials now have three weeks rather than two to finalize the primary results, so county clerks are expected to provide updates of vote totals in the coming days as ballots continue to be tallied.
That same law eliminated polling places usually available for early voting as well as on Election Day, and just seven of the state’s 29 counties — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Box Elder and Iron — are offering drive-up service locations as the only alternative to handle last-minute ballot issues Tuesday.
For information on the election, go to vote.utah.gov.