In recent years, candidate communication with voters has been dominated by sound bites. But this year Utah voters can go beyond those brief remarks to hear candidates’ positions on a range of issues. Simultaneously, voters can direct questions to those candidates and listen to their answers. That is happening because of the five live televised debates sponsored by the newly formed Utah Debate Commission (UDC).
Two of those debates already have occurred — the 1st and 2nd Congressional District candidates met at Weber State University and Southern Utah University, respectively, on Tuesday and Thursday last week. The next debate will be Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. at Brigham Young University and will involve candidates for state attorney general. The fourth debate will be at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 7, at Utah Valley University with the 3rd Congressional District candidates, and the final debate (also at 6 p.m.) will be held at the University of Utah between the candidates for the 4th Congressional District. All will be televised live on most Utah TV stations.
During the debates, eight to 10 questions from Utah voters are posed to the two candidates. Voters’ questions range from gay marriage, state or federal management of public lands, immigration reform and the future of Hill Air Force Base to even the problem of wild horses in Southern Utah. Anyone can pose a question through the UDC at its website at utahdebatecommission.org.
Why is the Utah Debate Commission doing this? Those on the commission’s board feel strongly that candidate-voter communication has deteriorated in recent years. Voters should be able to know more about candidates than what they hear in candidate ads.
But organizing these debates is not easy. Indeed, the task is enormous. Candidate relations, fundraising, venue logistics, live production, coordination with TV and radio stations, live streaming over the Internet, publicity and integration with K-12 education curricula are essential issues the UDC has had to address. Over $100,000 has been raised from generous donors throughout the state.
One of the most difficult jobs was to determine which candidates qualify for the debates. One possibility was to include anyone who filed for the ballot. The problem is that while some states set high bars on candidate filing, Utah does not. Beyond residency and age requirements, with a $485 fee, any candidate can register as a congressional candidate. A candidate for attorney general only has to pay $308.90 and be a member of the Utah bar.
That meant many people could file simply to get their few minutes of time on statewide television. Indeed, Democratic 3rd Congressional District candidate Brian Wonnacott admitted he is not running a campaign but only filed so he could get on television. The purpose of the UDC is not to offer valuable TV time to candidates who have no intention of campaigning, and its future success will depend on the political parties offering viable candidates and not just anyone who wants a forum.
Therefore, the UDC set a threshold of 10 percent to limit debate participation to candidates who already had some significant base of support among voters. Only the major-party candidates qualified this year. (Wonnacott qualified, but only barely.) Hopefully, some third-party candidates will qualify in the future.
I have served as a member of the board since the UDC’s inception and have been able to participate and observe this process. The members of the board have worked diligently through various committees to make these debates a success.
Voters should thank these board members — civic leaders, media representatives and educators — who have devoted many hours of volunteer time to offer this civic opportunity to Utah’s citizens. Special credit goes to the UDC’s co-chairs Scott Howell and Bob Bennett and former co-chair Olene Walker. And I can speak for the board in expressing our heartfelt thanks to Nena Slighting, the UDC’s executive director, who has been instrumental in bringing these debates to fruition.
So gather your family together Wednesday night (and on Oct. 7 and 14) to watch these debates. Give your children an important civics lesson and inform yourself about those who want to represent you. That’s what American democracy is all about.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.