Utahns are already overwhelmed by partisan political ads on television, internet posts, not-so-subtle social media rants and a myriad other ways that make it hard to evaluate candidates, their characters and positions.
Democracy demands informed choices, and those are facilitated best when voters get to hear candidates answer unscripted questions in debates sponsored by independent, nonpartisan groups.
That’s a hallmark of democracy, and it’s especially true in Utah, where the Republican Party enjoys overwhelming power, holding every major statewide office and all House and Senate seats. Often, the winner of a Republican primary in the Beehive State breezes through the general election in November with little opposition.
The Utah Debate Commission has provided such forums for years, conducting debates in major races that often are televised and easily accessible to all.
But now, the Utah Republican Party says it has problems with the commission and will host its own debates among primary election contenders. State party chair Carson Jorgensen said the party will let candidates decide for themselves whether to participate in the commission debates. First District congressman Blake Moore has said he would do so, but it’s unclear whether any others will. Two candidates have already said they are unavailable on the dates the commission has set.
The Utah Debate Commission is scrupulously independent. Its board co-chairs are D. Edgar Allen, a former Democratic state senator, and Wayne Niederhauser, a former Republican state Senate president. Both editors of Salt Lake’s major newspapers are part of the debate commission board, as are news directors and representatives of every major television station in the state. So are representatives of the state’s major universities.
The Debate Commission is a group that sets aside competition for the betterment of the electorate, and it has a successful track record. The motivation for moderators is to represent all people, and in the case of a primary election, all slices within that party, of which there are many.
To begin a debate by eliminating important questions means it’s not a productive debate at all.
The Debate Commission picks the dates without input from candidates. It selects the moderators, and it selects the questions. Candidates aren’t briefed on the questions ahead of time, and voters are encouraged to submit questions. The commission draws on the expertise of reporters, but also shares questioning with university students — an effort to engage younger voters in the democratic process.
Jorgensen argued to the Deseret News that the party isn’t trying to favor one candidate over another, but then he laid out his demands to the commission. He would allow the commission to provide a list of five potential moderators and 30 questions. The party would then pick a moderator and 10 of those questions.
What about that would be independent or fair? How would this serve voters trying to make important decisions? Party leaders and voters would naturally want different questions answered.
The party argues that primary elections concern candidates from only one party, therefore a debate commission that might include some Democrats should not be given control.
This is a red herring. The state Republican Party hasn’t objected in the past, nor has anyone made any serious allegation of bias concerning questions or moderators.
Some Republican candidates certainly don’t view the party’s plans as fair. One told the Deseret News she thinks the party is pushing the incumbent.
The state party’s move seems to be part of a nationwide Republican trend. The national Republican Party announced last month that it would no longer participate in debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has provided forums among presidential candidates since 1988. The party claims the debates are biased.
According to ABC News, some GOP candidates for key state or federal races in a number of states have either skipped or declined to commit to primary debates.
ABC News quoted Lauri Strauss, executive director of the Atlanta Press Club, asking, “How can someone run for office and want to be elected if they’re not willing to debate their opponents and let the public know what they stand for?”
Utah’s Republican Party would answer that its candidates are indeed going to debate. But we’re guessing a lot of voters can tell the difference between an independent debate — especially after years of watching and appreciating these in Utah — and one controlled by party leaders.
In a political world filled with scripted sound bites and babble, voters in the world’s greatest democracy deserve better.
Note: Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News, is a member of the Debate Commission board and has served as a moderator on several commission-sponsored debates.
An earlier version of this editorial did not make it clear that Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, had agreed to participate in the debate sponsored by the Debate Commission.