It promises to be a convention like none before it.

© Scott Sommerdorf
(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) This April 14, 2018, file photo shows delegates crammed into a schoolroom at Brighton High for the Hispanic Caucus at the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention. Saturday, Democrats in Salt Lake County will be participating in Utah’s first major virtual convention with none of the usual fanfare or hobnobbing of such events.

An estimated 1,100 Salt Lake County Democratic delegates on Saturday will participate — from the comfort of their own homes — in Utah’s first major virtual political convention of this election year during the coronavirus outbreak.

There will be none of the usual fanfare and hobnobbing of a party nominating convention. Instead, candidates in seven contested races were asked to post 5-minute videos on the party website and delegates will be contacted by phone to cast votes.

As if that weren’t enough of a departure from the norm, the convention will — for the first time — use ranked-choice voting.

Under this method, delegates vote for their first and second choice candidates and, in the case of a couple of more crowded races, the choices beyond that.

Then, throw in one more new twist. The threshold for clinching the nomination without going to a primary runoff has been changed from 60% of delegate votes to 55%.

What could go wrong?

It has all the makings of a perfect day for Murphy’s Law to kick in. But party leaders say that isn’t going to happen.

“We’re really organized. We’re really confident it’s going to go really smoothly,” said Bonnie Billings, Salt Lake County Democratic executive director.

With the help of about 20 volunteers, including party executive board members, Billings said everyone is pushing together to make sure the delegate voting is conducted fairly and efficiently. The goal is to have final results by around 6:30 p.m.

The biggest challenge and the hottest race is for state House 36 in the Millcreek/Holladay area. Four hopefuls have lined up to try to succeed veteran Rep. Patrice Arent, who is retiring after more than 20 years on Capitol Hill, in both chambers and, previously, as a legislative attorney.

The candidates are Doug Owens, an attorney who twice ran against former U.S. Rep. Mia Love; Utah Arts Alliance executive director Derek Dyer; mental health policy advocate Sherri Wittwer; and volunteer community activist Brandy Farmer.

Arent, as well as Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle, have endorsed Owens. But the other candidates are running hard to emerge from the convention as nominee, or at least make it to the June 30 primary.

“All of us are pretty good candidates,” said Dyer, who noted the challenges of trying to campaign during the coronavirus outbreak amid stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

He described himself as “excited and apprehensive” going into Saturday’s convention.

“Whenever it’s the first time trying out something new” you can expect “hiccups,” he said of the convention format. “You plan on things going wrong, we just need to react as best we can.”

Wittwer said she’s learned to accept that some things are beyond her control in what “really is an unprecedented situation…. I have decided I can do my best and we’ll see what happens.”

Farmer acknowledges that campaigning has been a challenge, using videos and online conference calling and phone calls. “It’s always much better when you’re face to face with people.”

She said the convention process “seems more complicated than usual,” but she’s hoping it works out.

Owens said he’s impressed by what he’s seen so far with the convention plan.

“My hat is off to party officials who are really scrambling to make things work in an upended world,” he said. “It seems like it’s going to work fine, of course everybody’s keeping their fingers crossed.”

In addition to picking a nominee or primary opponents in House District 36, Democrats will be winnowing three candidates vying for the nomination in House District 46, now held by soon-to-retire Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights.

Each of the remaining five races has two Democratic candidates: in Senate District 6, and House districts 33, 42 and 47. Delegates also will vote for a nominee in Salt Lake County Council District 6. All of those offices are currently held by Republicans.

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