“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,” James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and the fourth president of the United States, wrote. He went on to make the point that “a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
Madison’s statements are as true today as they were in 1822, when he included them in a letter to Kentucky’s lieutenant governor.
Voting is a fundamental right of adult American citizens. However, we, the League of Women Voters of Maine, believe that right comes with a weighty responsibility. Citizenship requires knowledge. Rather than voting the party line or being misled by corporate-funded attack ads or choosing the candidate with the greater name recognition, voters have a duty to study candidates’ records, positions and demeanors before choosing their preferred candidate — to make sure that candidate actually represents the people’s best interests and acts in a manner that befits public office.
If a candidate has served in federal or state government, his or her record is usually available on the body’s website. A candidate’s positions on issues may be gleaned from his or her campaign website or media reports. At campaign appearances, a candidate’s demeanor is sometimes apparent, but short speeches and “meet and greets” can be carefully choreographed. Watching or listening to call-in programs is a better way to gauge a candidate’s positions and demeanor.
However, the best way for the public to evaluate candidates’ records, positions and demeanors is to see them go head to head at in-person or broadcast debates. First, candidates have an opportunity to speak for an equal length of time regardless of their campaign coffers. Second, instead of dwelling on their strengths, candidates are forced to answer the same, sometimes difficult questions. Third, voters can observe how candidates cope with a stress.
Maine has a long history of televised debates. In 1960, when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon participated in the first televised presidential debates, Lucia Cormier, Maine’s House minority leader, and incumbent Sen. Margaret Chase Smith participated in one of the nation’s first televised senatorial debates, which was the first between two women.
During the 21st century, Maine’s candidates for governor and U.S. Senate and House have generally participated in debates. However, to serve their own political purposes, several candidates have declined to participate in all debates, withdrawn from some at the last minute, or agreed to schedule them only late in the campaign. Ducking debates deprives voters of the knowledge they need to vote responsibly.
In January, gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler challenged opponents Mike Michaud and Paul LePage to a debate in every one of Maine’s 16 counties. In July, U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows challenged opponent Susan Collins to 10 debates — the same number that Collins and Tom Allen had in 2008. This spring, candidates Emily Cain and Bruce Poliquin participated in debates during their respective 2nd District primary campaigns. We are optimistic the two congressional candidates will face off against each other in the fall. In the 1st District, neither Isaac Misiuk nor Chellie Pingree had an opponent in the primary election, but we hope they meet to debate the issues prior to the general election.
The League of Women Voters hopes, for the good of voters, the gubernatorial, Senate and congressional campaigns will schedule as many debates as possible, as soon as possible. We stand ready to share our experience in planning and moderating debates with any organization that wants to sponsor a debate.
First lady Lou Hoover once said, “That we have the vote means nothing. That we use it in the right way means everything.”
The League of Women Voters believes the responsibility of good government rests on the shoulders of its citizens. To carry out that responsibility, voters need as much information about political candidates as possible. Debates are the best way for voters to acquire that information.
Michelle A. Small of Brunswick serves on the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of Maine.