Legend has it that Calvin Coolidge, while lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, once approached a man at a gathering and said, "Hello, I'm Lt. Gov. Calvin Coolidge."
The man answered, "So, what is it that a lieutenant governor does?"
Coolidge said, "I just did it."
Whether or not the story is true, Gary Herbert can relate.
If the name doesn't ring a bell, Herbert is Utah's lieutenant governor. Voters elected him along with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., and yet he says the most common question his wife gets is, "Your husband is lieutenant governor? What does he do?"
Quite a lot, it turns out.
And yet, Herbert no doubt hopes most of you will continue to wonder what he does as this coming Tuesday turns into Wednesday. The only way his name would become a household word is if something went terribly wrong with the balloting.
By law, the lieutenant governor is in charge of all elections in Utah. That means that, as in most other states, Utah leaves the integrity of its elections in the hands of an elected official.
It's a built-in conflict of interest as wide as Bryce Canyon, but it is one that is repeated on the county level as well, where partisan elected county clerks run the nuts and bolts of voting.
And the fact you're probably not too worried about that is a tribute to this political process. Elected officials are kept in check by their accountability to voters, and by the difficulty of hiding things in an information age.
From the beginning of the republic, few urges have been stronger than the one to rig the political process. At times, from the late 19th century to the mid 20th, elections in parts of this country would have had a hard time getting past the glare of a U.N. observer team. Predominantly black precincts in the South somehow elected white segregationists, and in parts of Texas, dead people rose up and voted in alphabetical order in the 1948 Senate race.
But there are two reasons why it's harder than ever to bring it about. One is the instant spread of information. It's hard to stuff ballot boxes when someone nearby could flip a cell phone and land an image on CNN almost instantly. The other is technology. Modern equipment is harder to compromise than simply stuffing a box.
Harder, that is, but not impossible.
Herbert is a man of ironies, in one sense. As he has told me on several occasions, he was not a fan of expensive new voting equipment. The old punch-card ballots served democracy well and provided a way to reliably check results, the infamous problems in Florida in 2000 not withstanding.
But Congress reacted to Florida by passing the Help America Vote Act, which, among other things, mandated that elections be completely accessible to the handicapped. After a lot of research, he decided Utah should contract with Diebold to install electronic voting machines.
That has been a controversial decision in some quarters. California's secretary of state has restricted the use of Diebold machines in February's presidential primary there because she said a security review found they were susceptible to hacking, according to the Fresno Bee.
Herbert has no such worries. He said Utah's machines are secure and under lock and key. Besides, you either trust him or you don't.
"Any system is only as good as the people who run the election," he said. "If you don't trust the people with the new equipment, you shouldn't trust them with the old push-paper ballots, either."
The vouchers issue makes Tuesday a rarity, of sorts. Special statewide elections don't happen often in Utah. We voted on bringing the Olympics here in 1989. In 1974, the state considered a land-use issue.If all goes well, Mrs. Herbert will still be getting those questions about what it is, exactly, that her husband does.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]