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Lincoln-Douglas. Kennedy-Nixon. Obama-Romney.
Those elections for U.S. president or in the case of Lincoln-Douglas, for a U.S. Senate seat portending a presidential race were largely defined by debates between the candidates.
The groundbreaking 1858 Lincoln-Douglas orations in Illinois explored the most significant human rights issue ever faced by America: slavery. Kennedy and Nixon, in the first presidential debates, tackled civil rights and the intensifying Cold War with the Soviet Union. For Obama and Romney, the dominant issue was the role of government in protecting and improving the health and economic well-being of Americans.
Debates are essential to the electoral process. They offer the single best opportunity for voters to compare and contrast candidates, and provide invaluable information for the voting booth.
That's the reason for the Utah Debate Commission to organize forums in which candidates will engage in meaningful exchanges of ideas and opinions and make the discussions readily available to every voter in the state.
Modeled after the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Utah group is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that will produce debates on statewide and federal races. The group's governing board includes educators from six Utah universities, news directors and managers from Salt Lake City's four commercial television stations and from KUED and KBYU public television, the editors of Salt Lake City's two daily newspapers and other community leaders.
The board is led by former state Sen. Scott Howell, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican. Bennett replaces former Gov. Olene Walker, who stepped down last month but remains a board member and one of the group's guiding lights.
Nena Slighting, former director of the Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University, is the commission's newly named director.
At a recent news conference announcing the commission, participants bemoaned Utah's voter participation rate, which is at historic lows. By staging consistent, civil, professionally produced debates, moderated by informed, skilled interviewers, the goal is to engage more Utahns in the process, and get them out on Election Day. The commission is committed to fairness and discussions that involve issues and residents from throughout the state. Debates will be staged at Utah's universities.
"We trust that the UDC will create a climate of candidate debating that benefits no individual candidate or particular party, but does benefit the voters who seek information beyond press releases and 30-second ads," says Howell, adding that the commission can't do this alone and needs cooperation from office seekers.
"The UDC, at heart, is Utah's citizenry stepping up and telling politicians that we want more useful information before we vote, and it is the job of candidates to cooperate to provide that for us."
The television stations will broadcast the debates live, and other news websites sltrib.com, for one will live-stream them. We also will provide coverage for our print readers, and our desire will be to archive the live stream for later viewing online when it might be more convenient.
Dates and locations for this fall's debates have been set for the four U.S. House and state attorney general races.
It's an exciting project, one that promises to make elections more engaging and relevant to that very important person: the voter.
Terry Orme, editor and publisher of The Tribune, is a board member of the Utah Debate Commission. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Utah Debate Commission 2014 Debate Schedule
1st Congressional District, Sept. 23, Weber State University
2nd Congressional District, Sept. 25, Southern Utah University
3rd Congressional District, Oct. 7, Utah Valley University
Attorney General, Oct. 9, Brigham Young University
4th Congressional District, Oct. 14, University of Utah