Richard Davis: Debates will improve election process for voters, candidates

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In 2012, KUED and KBYU co-sponsored a televised gubernatorial debate. It was the only televised debate that year between the two major party nominees for governor. By contrast, there were three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate that same year. Why the disparity?

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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In 2012, KUED and KBYU co-sponsored a televised gubernatorial debate. It was the only televised debate that year between the two major party nominees for governor. By contrast, there were three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate that same year. They were sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has made presidential candidate debates a regular feature of presidential campaigns. Each of those debates was covered by an array of national broadcast television networks, such as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, as well as cable news networks including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and CSPAN.

Why the disparity? Is the decision about who becomes the governor of Utah not very important? Of course that is not true. The governor makes decisions that affect the lives of Utahns in areas ranging from public education to the environment to transportation to health care.

Do Utah voters already participate in elections at a rate that makes debates unnecessary? The voter turnout figures suggest the opposite. In 1968, Utah was the No. 1 state in the number of eligible voters who turned out to vote. Today, Utah sits near the bottom in voter turnout.

Civic leaders, universities and media organizations have joined together to address the problem of voter information and engagement. No, this isn’t about Count My Vote. Rather, it is a new organization called the Utah Debate Commission. (Full disclosure — I serve as a member of the board of directors of the Utah Debate Commission as BYU’s representative.)

The formation of the Utah Debate Commission was announced in a press conference on Monday. Attendees at the press conference said quite a bit about the commission’s bipartisanship. Republicans such as former state Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright and likely congressional candidate Mia Love were there, along with likely Democratic candidates Luz Robles and Doug Owens. All of them wanted to make this new commission a reality to improve the civility of campaigns, increase candidate accountability to the voters and better inform voters about the stances of candidates on issues.

What will this new commission do? It will organize, schedule, host and televise statewide and federal debates in Utah beginning in 2014. The commission already has scheduled five debates for this fall — one for each congressional district and the special election for the attorney general’s race. The debates will be held across the state — Weber State University, Southern Utah University, Utah Valley University, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah — and will allow audiences in various regions of the state to ask questions of the candidates who seek to represent them.

This organization is independent of interest groups or political parties. Members of the board are drawn from six universities, all the television stations, the two statewide newspapers and civic leaders. The co-chairmen are former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and former Utah Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell. Other members include former Gov. Olene Walker, former Utah state Sen. Karen Hale and former Utah state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

To clarify, the Utah Debate Commission has no relationship with Count My Vote. Individuals on the board are on opposite sides of the question of whether Count My Vote is a good thing for the state. The Utah Debate Commission takes no stand on initiatives or candidates. Rather, the purpose is to create a process of debate scheduling that offers voters an opportunity to hear the candidates and then make their own decisions about who to vote for.

Voters can help make the Utah Debate Commission work. If candidates express uncertainty about whether they are willing to participate, voters should contact them and let them know that debate participation is an expectation of campaigning for elected office. Voters also should take time to watch the debates to learn more about the candidates.

Like the Commission on Presidential Debates at the national level, the Utah Debate Commission will create a climate of debating that assures that candidates have a forum to express their views and voters have the opportunity to question candidates about issues of importance to them. This is a new day in Utah politics. Let’s debate.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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