For the second year in a row, Louisiana voters have reached the end of a primary election cycle while scratching their heads. Many are wondering why another televised debate featuring statewide candidates looked more like a train wreck than an important function of our democracy.
But instead of lambasting debate organizers, which is always an easy matter, let’s all agree to do something about it. The time has come for Louisiana to have its own nonpartisan, nonprofit commission on statewide televised debates. There’s already a template to follow with the Commission on Presidential Debates, and there are most certainly several lessons to be learned from the 2015 and 2016 debates that were conducted in the Bayou State.
During last year’s race for governor, a televised debate held in New Orleans fell short on posing important questions about the issues facing Louisiana—so much so that it overshadowed the actual responses. The reaction on social media, and on editorial pages, was harsh. And rightfully so.
Not long after, there was another TV debate for gubernatorial candidates on the campus of Louisiana Tech in Ruston. Organizers made the unusual decision to ban the general public and reporters from being in the same room with the candidates while the cameras were rolling. (The journalists who covered the debate did so by staring at a television monitor that lost its feed at one point.)
But the moment that should have shaken us all into realizing there’s something wrong arrived during this year’s U.S. Senate election, when a televised debate was conducted last week on the campus of Dillard University in New Orleans. It was likewise off limits to the press and general public, a decision that resulted in not-so-peaceful protests that garnered national headlines. The process for how the candidates were selected to participate has since fallen under fire as well, with suggestions that ratings trumped fairness.
In the end, all three of these debates were better suited to the politics of the candidates than the need to better inform voters. When we start allowing statewide candidates to debate on college campuses—now seemingly on an annual basis—without even permitting students to attend, that’s a problem. When we let private corporations not only organize these cornerstones of voter education, but also dictate how reporters should cover them, that’s a problem too.
What’s needed now (the sooner the better) is a group of concerned citizens who will tackle these challenges without political intent. But an independent commission on statewide debates would also require buy-ins from both of the major state parties, with Republican and Democratic leaders agreeing to see this idea through to fruition. Once that small group of idealists is in place, a trusted good government organization, like the Public Affairs Research Council, should partner up with LSU or another higher education institution to study the role of televised debates in the statewide election process. This tracks how the Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 and it can serve Louisiana just as well.
With the resulting findings from the study, party and civic leaders can then go about incorporating the commission. But the most important step will be creating an independent board of directors to oversee the commission’s mission—like candidate selection, debate formats, moderator criteria, acceptable sites and related issues. The membership of any such board should be diverse, pulling in members of the media, former politicians, professors, foundation heads and others.
Funding will be important, too, because this is not going to happen for free. If a statewide debate commission is to exist in Louisiana, its board should prohibit funding from state government, political parties and candidates. The Bayou State is full of generous souls and this is clearly a job for a committed foundation and private donors—just as long as they know they will have no input whatsoever in the televised debates resulting from this process.
The goal of this proposed commission should always be educating voters, which means engaging in various activities beyond producing and sponsoring debates—just like the Commission on Presidential Debates. Informational material for newly-registered voters is one idea. Conducting ongoing research to improve the quality of debates all over the state is another. Think about it: when forum and debate organizers are planning their own gatherings for local-level races and even congressional elections, they’ll be able to turn this Louisiana commission for guidance and technical advice.
There’s little doubt that Louisiana has a growing problem when it comes to televised debates for statewide candidates. The Commission on Presidential Debates offers a ready roadmap for a way forward. It may not be the most elegant solution, but the alternative, which is doing nothing in response to two years of embarrassing moments, is a public disservice of the highest degree.