There is nothing more fundamental to our blessed democracy than to achieve free and fair election processes where our electorate has opportunities to learn of the candidates and of their views, experience and abilities.
The strength of our system of government is significantly dependent upon providing our voters with opportunities to make informed and independent decisions as they cast their votes. Campaign sound bites and flashy 30-second ads fall far short of achieving this lofty goal. Certainly, one of the most powerful pathways is through vigorous, independent and fair public debates.
Through most of our history, national presidential debates, if they occurred, were dictated by the interests of individual candidates. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon agreed to three televised debates in 1960, but debates did not occur again for numerous presidential election cycles.
In 1987 the Commission on Presidential Debates was created, and debates were organized independently. They acquired enough prestige that the candidates no longer avoided participation. Since 1987 candidates of all major parties have participated.
Historically, debates in Utah for federal and statewide offices were generally sporadic, and scheduling and participation were determined by the candidates and parties themselves based on personal considerations, as opposed to prioritizing voter’s needs.
In 2013, a serious effort was undertaken to improve upon this situation. The Utah Debate Commission was organized as an independent, nonpartisan, partnership of higher education institutions, media organizations and community leaders devoted to creating fair and independently run debates, with a goal of better educating and informing Utah’s citizens. This organization has become one of only four commissions of this kind in the United States and is considered an outstanding example of civic involvement.
Since its inception, the co-chairs have been chosen from each major party. The board of directors includes 11 members who come from the eight universities in our state, 13 media executives and nine members from the community who have long records of service. Former chairs of both major political parties in Utah are currently members of this board. Initial board co-chairs included Olene Walker, who had served previously as Utah’s first female governor, and a former Utah Senate minority leader and candidate for U.S. Senate, Scott Howell. Due to health reasons, Walker was replaced by former U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett.
All members of the debate commission are committed to continue the track record of fair vigorous and independent debates. These have bene held in each general election for the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as gubernatorial and attorney general races since 2014. Primary debates were added in 2018.
The Utah Debate Commission produced the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Michael Pence and then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
In each debate great care has been extended in selecting fair and effective moderators and in accepting appropriate and significant issues and questions for discussion. These debates have been considered a shining example of such efforts in our nation.
Dates and times have been set for upcoming general election debates. We appreciate the willingness of the final candidates to make time available and to accept the rigors involved in providing such a significant benefit to our voters. We are grateful to our media and university partners who work hard and sacrifice to produce these important events.
We are proud of our remarkable state and the commitment to fairness and transparency demonstrated by so many of its citizens.
Ed Allen is a former member of the Utah Senate and currently co-chair of the Utah Debate Commission.