A wide body of law addresses the subject of voters’ rights, while very little in the law addresses voters’ responsibilities. To cast a ballot, a person must demonstrate little beyond citizenship and residency. Whether a voter chooses to be well informed on candidates and issues is purely voluntary.
That’s why we support and contribute to the efforts of the Utah Debate Commission, which will stage a series of candidate discussions leading up to the 2014 general elections.
The commission, a nonprofit cooperative of educators, news media and community leaders, views the series of televised debates as a way of encouraging a more informed electorate. The format will be modeled after the structure of debates staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The tradition of candidate debates runs deep in the history of American politics. Political scientists have documented numerous cases in which debates have been a primary influence in the outcome of an election.
We believe it is an obligation of news organizations to promote and cover such forums and an obligation of candidates to participate. We also think responsible voters should find it obligatory to watch the debates with an open and critical mind.
We also hope the production of such high-profile exchanges will attract widespread attention and inspire citizens to be more engaged in the electoral process. We have been discouraged by recent trends toward lower rates of voter turnout. Utah once enjoyed one of the nation’s highest rates of turnout, but in the past decade it has suffered from one of the lowest.
How Utah selects candidates for office has itself been the subject of intense debate in recent months. A statewide initiative petition sought to make it easier for candidates to appear on a primary ballot. Supporters of the state’s caucus and convention system resisted efforts to reduce the influence of caucusgoers. The compromise, under which caucuses continue but candidates will have an alternative path to the ballot beginning during the next political cycle, will receive much attention this week, as both major political parties hold their neighborhood caucuses.
Both sides of that debate should be united in the common interest of having an informed base of voters. The success of a democratic form of government is predicated on something of a contract between elected officials and those who place them in office. Candidates are expected to serve the public, which makes it vital the voting public is clear about its expectations.
A series of open and thorough exchanges among candidates offers a valuable opportunity for voters to honor their part of that contract. The debates will allow voters to look beyond the sloganeering and slick advertising that so dominates modern politics.
We hope citizens will embrace opportunities to vet candidates and issues because the electoral process is enhanced when the voice of the voter is one that is clear and enlightened.