Debates are an important venue for voters to gain information about candidates. However, debates between Utah candidates for federal and statewide office are sporadic in nature. In 2012, only one televised debate existed between the two major party candidates for U.S. Senate. The same was true for the gubernatorial race. The considerations about debate scheduling and participation are made by the candidates in light of current electoral considerations rather than the consistent need for voters to gain valuable information about candidates.
The situation in Utah was similar on a national level until the 1980s. Debate participation and scheduling was dictated by the interests of the particular candidates. While both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon agreed to three televised presidential debates in 1960, that experience was not duplicated for 16 years as candidates avoided debates. In 1980, presidential candidates avoided debates they did not want to participate in, although one debate was held at the very end of the campaign.
The standardization of debates occurred after the creation of the presidential debate commission in 1987. The commission organized debates independent of the campaigns and gained such prestige within the electoral process that candidates were unable to avoid participation. Since that time, all major party candidates have participated. In 1992, a third party candidate participated as well.
Utahns need an organization to sponsor and organize statewide debates in each general election cycle. The debate commission will be responsible for producing a series of debates each election cycle involving candidates for statewide and federal office In Utah – governor, U.S. Senator, and U.S. House. The commission is working with educational institutions and media organizations to establish venues for debates as well as media coverage.
The existence of a debate commission will regularize debates each cycle and place decisions about debate place and time and number in the hands of an independent organization rather than campaign or party organizations, which may be affected by immediate electoral considerations. The debate commission will pre-schedule debates, even before general election candidates are chosen, and invite candidates and media organizations to participate.
The commission has the following functions:
- Form partnerships with state educational institutions throughout the state to secure appropriate venues and audiences for debates, as well as to sponsor educational activities related to debates and elections.
- Coordinate with television stations to provide live television coverage of scheduled debates.
- Schedule and announce debate dates and venues well in advance of the conclusion of party nomination processes.
- Select moderators or press panels from among local journalists or academics.
- Create a system for voter input in debate attendance and participation, as well as public participation in debate content.
- Determine the rules for the debate such as format, response length, rebuttals, etc.
The commission has the following guidelines:
- Be multi-partisan. Candidates from all existing registered political parties in Utah will have potential access to debate participation.
- Set thresholds for participation to allow voters to have a meaningful exchange between viable candidates. The thresholds will be high enough to include viable candidates but low enough to admit candidates who may have a significant chance of acquiring public support.
- Rotate debate venues across the state to increase public participation, as well as highlight regional issues throughout the state.
- Schedule two to three statewide debates (governor/senator) and one to two Congressional debates each general election. This does not preclude the candidates from scheduling additional debates. However, this would guarantee there was at least one debate in each race.
The debate commission has two co-chairs – one from each major party. These individuals are responsible for supervising the production and scheduling of each debate in each election cycle and working with education partners and media affiliates on debate logistics and media coverage. The chairs also coordinate with candidate campaigns and party organizations. In addition, they identify corporate and individual sponsors for each debate cycle.
The organization also includes a board of directors, including representatives of the six affiliate television stations (KSL, KUTV, KTVX, KUED, FOX 13, and KBYU), representatives of the six universities in the state (USU, BYU, WSU, SUU, UVU, and Utah), and civic and community leaders.
Nena Slighting, the new Director of the Utah Debate Commission, previously served as the Director of the Walker Institute at Weber State University. She received her Juris Doctorate from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.
The commission will work with educational partners to schedule debate times and venues, host debates, select audiences, coordinate with media, and facilitate voter education activities in conjunction with the debates.
The commission will work with media affiliates to schedule debate times and venues, assuring that the debates receive television coverage and making the debates accessible to Utah voters.