I noticed an unfortunate item in the newspaper recently. One of Montana’s nominees for Congress is refusing to debate his opponent. This is not good.
One of my jobs as Montana’s Elections Chief is to ensure that voters have maximum access to the ballot and that democracy is convenient to them. Part of this means helping citizens be informed. For example, my office prints the Voter Information Pamphlet that sets out arguments for and against each ballot initiative, which serves as a printed debate forum with arguments written by both sides.
I certainly don’t have the power to arrange debates, but I must take this opportunity to stress their importance. Campaigns in America have become dominated by money, and candidates speak to us mostly through mass media, TV ads and piles of mail. They sometimes do interviews or press conferences or give speeches. These reach the voters only in brief snippets and sound bites.
Debates are different. They are rare occasions when a candidate can be directly cross-examined by reporters, moderators and even their opponent, in front of a live TV audience. What is said by the candidate is unfiltered and any voter can tune in to watch or listen. It is an adversarial proceeding, almost like a courtroom, which means that a candidate cannot hide or run.
Often, a candidate will avoid attending debates for strategic reasons. I have always detested this as an outrageous disservice to voters. I’ve run for office seven times and have never turned down a debate. The Congressional debate in Billings must go forward, and the same goes for the U.S. Senate race, the races for Public Service Commission, judicial races, legislative races, county commission races, and every other political contest in Montana.
Anyone who refuses to debate their opponent at least once (and for statewide races, at least once in each major city), shows a terrible disrespect for voters and democracy.
Secretary of State
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