On Sept. 21, the Utah Debate Commission will sponsor its first debate of the 2016 general election season. The debate, at Dixie State University, will pit Attorney General Sean Reyes, the Republican incumbent, against his Democratic challenger Jon Harper, former associate dean of the University of Utah Law School. It is the first of seven sponsored by the UDC. Utahns should put these events on their calendars and take the time to watch.
The UDC was formed in 2013 by a group of academics, civic leaders and media representatives to provide Utah voters with a regular, nonpartisan, independent forum for the hosting of candidate debates during the general election campaign. Prior to the formation of the UDC, debates were sporadic due to costs to media organizations or candidate reluctance.
The Utah Debate Commission has resolved these problems by sponsoring the debates and then offering them to media organizations. Candidates are willing to participate because they know the debates are transmitted broadly and are popular with viewers. Viewers like them because they are live and provide opportunities to hear the candidates respond to questions from Utah voters. (Two years ago, two of the candidate debates were the most watched television programs in Utah during the hour they were shown.) Any Utah voter can submit a question for possible use in a candidate debate through the UDC website at utahdebatecommission.org.
This year, candidates from the U.S. Senate race and the four congressional races will meet in debates. Additionally, the gubernatorial and attorney general candidates will debate. The debates are shown at 6 p.m. on most local television stations. The dates and venues for each debate are available at the website address above.
The UDC focus is on federal races and some statewide races. Some people have suggested that the debate commission idea should be extended to state legislative and local races. However, the UDC has restricted the scope of its efforts largely due to costs. Each debate is a studio-quality production with five cameras, a production crew and satellite time. In addition, since the debates are held in various universities throughout the state — from St. George to Logan — there are the additional costs of mobile production trucks and mobile studios. Plus, there are no commercials during the hour-long debates, which is a major advertising dollar loss for the television and radio stations covering the debate.
Another concern has been the question of which candidates are allowed in the debates. Utah does not have a high threshold for registering as a candidate. Fees range from $485 to $1,355 to file for the races included in UDC debates. For example, 11 candidates filed for governor this year. Five of them will be on the ballot. In order to assure that voters receive access to information about viable candidates, a threshold of 10 percent (with allowance for a margin of error) in a UDC-commissioned poll conducted in August was set for inclusion. The attitude of the board was that a candidate who receives that much support has a chance of increasing support, but those who cannot reach that percentage have virtually no chance of being elected.
I am proud to serve as a member of the board of the Utah Debate Commission. Others include representatives from six other academic institutions besides the one I represent, news directors from the state’s commercial and public television stations, and civic and business leaders interested in promoting civil political discourse and facilitating well-informed vote decisions. While a member, I have been able to rub shoulders with some wonderful citizens of the state who donate their time to participate. They receive no compensation for doing so. The co-chairs, for example, have been the late Olene Walker, Scott Howell, the late Bob Bennett, and Thomas Wright — bipartisan examples of good citizens intent on elevating the electoral process in Utah.
Utah is lucky to have the Utah Debate Commission. The UDC provides a valuable service for Utah voters. In return, voters should take advantage of the opportunity to hear from candidates in order to make a more informed decision about who to vote for.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.