Does California need a statewide debate commission?

Every election provides sort of an MRI snapshot of the health of the democratic process. Take California’s recent recall election. This revealed to many a need to reform the state’s 110-year-old recall process by exposing how a governor facing no major charges of corruption or incompetence could potentially fall short of 50%, get replaced by someone winning a fraction that total, and leave the state in far greater disarray.


California Secretary of State Shirley Weber and members of the State Legislature have begun investigating reform options for a 2022 ballot proposition. But far under the radar was another wobbly aspect of California democracy: the state’s ad hoc debate system for statewide offices. For example in the 2021 recall, neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the leading GOP candidate Larry Elder participated in the organized debates. Plus, three of the four debates were marked by the following blemishes:

  • The first debate at the Nixon Library featured a tilted panel consisting of conservative Hugh Hewitt and Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, along with two neutral TV journalists.

  • Before the next two debates, Democrat Kevin Paffrath finished first and second in two respected statewide polls (here and here) among replacement candidates. Yet he was not invited. He did join the fourth debate and ultimately received the second-most replacement votes after Elder.

  • The Sacramento Press Club organized the third debate, but later revelations connected one of its members to the ticket used by the process server who interrupted the closed-door event to subpoena candidate John Cox. Cox and another invited candidate called for the member’s name and other details to be shared publicly, but the press club has refused.

Plus, none of the debates were broadcast live to the entire state nor featured a question directly from an average voter. Combine all these flaws, and California’s current debate approach strikes some as falling far short of the state’s and voters’ democratic needs. This includes Thad Kousser, chair of the University of California at San Diego’s Dept. of Political Science, who said California voters should expect better.


“It is an informal institution that is broken and needs attention,” Kousser said. “A fair and open exchange of ideas is central to civic life. When high stakes moments in state politics don’t have that exchange, we can’t say we have a perfectly functioning democracy.”


Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters of California, noted California has not televised a statewide general-election debate with both top candidates since 2016. This featured Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez’s face off for Barbara Boxer’s open U.S. Senate seat. In the 2018 general election, then Lt. Gov. Newsom agreed only to one morning radio debate with Cox, and in 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to just a single televised debate scheduled opposite the opening night of pro football.


“I have been disappointed in our statewide debates for many, many years,” Goldberg said. “You can never get the leading candidates in the same place, and I think that is a disservice to the voters who are understandably tired of hearing mostly canned speeches and long ads on YouTube.”


For many of the above reasons, groups in other states have either turned to or are beginning to consider creating their own independent, nonpartisan debate commissions. These are patterned on the national Commission on Presidential Debates but with no connection to either major party. Such commissions bring together academics, media outlets, community leaders, and respected senior politicians to establish fair ground rules, an early debate schedule (to avoid “scheduling conflict” excuses) and manage the debates themselves.


Indiana established the first of these in 2007. Over the last eight years, Utah, Washington State and Ohio followed. Like in California, Utah and Washington also feature another growing trend to refortify democratic foundations: nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end political gerrymandering.


BYU political science professor Richard Davis helped found the Utah Debate Commission in 2013 and still sits on that board. This came the year after former U.S. Senator Orin Hatch agreed to only a single morning debate on radio (á la Newsom five years later). Since the commission’s creation, Davis said participating in statewide debates is now a standard expectation of all major Utah candidates for top statewide and federal offices.


“We have been very successful. We’ve had at least five debates every election cycle, sometimes more, and all are aired live and well-covered,” Davis said. “In an era when there are so many news sources that are not reliable, we need to provide voters with as much legitimate information as we can.”


After Ohio created the fourth state debate commission in 2018, those commissions formed an umbrella organization called the State Debate Coalition. This is designed to assist groups in other states establish their own independent debate commissions. In September, this included holding a special webinar that featured 25 participants from 9 other states, including large states like Texas (2nd largest by population) and Michigan (10th).


“There has been interest in this,” said Davis, who in a volunteer capacity also serves as the coalition’s chair. “I think it is spurred by a concern our politics have become too toxic and too partisan, and candidates are pulling out of debates that they feel are biased. We have to find a way to restore debates and not lose them.”


Joe Berry, president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association (CBA), was less certain a statewide debate commission was needed in California. He felt the state’s large media groups are already doing a good job organizing debates. This included Nexstar Media who hosted the second recall debate and Hearst Media, which organized the fourth. He added they should each be applauded for their civic-minded investment of time and money in staging the events.


However if such debates weren’t being organized, Berry said the CBA would consider stepping in as it did in 2003 when the CBA hosted the only statewide recall debate to feature future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Berry proudly noted that debate attracted 65 satellite trucks and was the first debate anywhere broadcast in high definition. Still, even that single forum fell short of a Public Policy Institute of California poll at the time that reported 60% of California voters favored candidates for governor to participate in at least five primetime broadcast debates, which Berry said was probably an unrealistic standard.


“Unless you are going to compel candidates to debate, you are always going to run into the problem of whether frontrunners feel it is in their best interest to participate,” said Joe Berry, president and CEO of the California Broadcasters Association. “Anything shy of a constitutional amendment, and you are always going to have that risk.”


Berry also worried whether organizing one or more statewide debates by a single commission could cause candidates to participate in fewer regional debates that might address, say, water issues in the Central Valley and forestry in the north.


Raphael Sonenshein, who is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, sees pros and cons in most debate systems. But he agreed with Berry that value can exist in diversity.


“There is a lot of variety in a state like this. There are a lot of various places, universities, news outlets that can sponsor debates. So in theory you can get a lot of different kinds of debates,” said Sonenshein, who has a long history organizing high-profile debates. This included partnering with the League of Women Voters and Los Angeles ABC affiliate on the 2016 Harris-Sanchez Senate debate and the 2019 Democratic presidential forum held ahead of the 2020 primary.


Dan Schnur was more skeptical of the status quo. He served on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and was chief spokesperson for former Gov. Pete Wilson. He now teaches political communication at UC Berkeley and USC. He was unfamiliar with the budding debate commission trend but said he could see it as a valid option for California.


“There is certainly a declining value associated with the current ad hoc debate system,” Schnur said “For a long time in California and at the national level, there was a set of political-societal expectations that pressured candidates to participate even if they were reluctant. But those expectations and norms simply don’t exist in California anymore.”


Without such pressure, he said a basic frontrunner strategy usually prevails.


“If you are a candidate running comfortably ahead in the polls, you avoid debates for the same reason football teams with a big lead don’t throw a lot of long passes. There’s no reason to expose your candidate to risk,” Schur said.


Davis with the State Debate Coalition acknowledged larger states do present added complexity and that smaller states can more quickly get a debate commission up and running.


“It is easier in a small state to get all the interests together,” he said. “California would probably be the most complicated because it is the largest state. But if it can work in Ohio, which has many media markets too, it can work in California.”


That said, he said there should be no debate that the independent-commission model effectively counters the most common threat to a good debate: a top candidate not attending.


“That’s one of the beauties of this approach. It’s easier for a candidate to get out of a debate from a particular group or station, but to avoid a debate from an entire debate commission is harder to do,” he said. “They understand this could place all of the stations, universities and community leaders against them, and that is not a good situation to be in.”


Davis acknowledged a candidate no-show could still happen, but so far “nobody has actually turned down an invitation yet. Not any incumbent or challenger. Not in Utah or any of the other states with an independent commission.”


He added a neutral commission is also the best way to work through issues such as the criteria for debate participants, setting a schedule of debates early, determining which races to feature, whether to also organize primary debates, communicating with campaigns and how best to involve direct voter questions.


“The [Utah] media has been very supportive of this whole enterprise because it provides them with some benefits. It means they don’t have to deal with all the details. They don’t have to manage the criteria of whom to invite. They don’t have to negotiate with the campaigns and be played off against other stations. They just have to take the debate feed,” Davis said.


UC San Diego’s Kousser noted another challenge with getting an independent California debate commission off the ground: volunteer bandwidth. In his own case, he’s already very involved on the recall reform ballot proposition, and he has been helping the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission develop transparency regulations to oversee online political advertising.


Goldberg with the League of Women Voters noted one more: a simple lack of awareness of what other states were doing. But having learned about the other states’ independent debate commissions, she described herself as definitely “intrigued.” Schnur likewise put himself in that category.


“There’s no reason a media and university consortium couldn’t begin to put together some kind of structure. It wouldn’t guarantee the candidates would all participate but it would increase the likelihood,” Schnur said. “The key is having a consortium working together as opposed to individual actors.”


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