What do political candidates owe to their voters?

By Gail Chaney Kalinich
Posted10/14/2016 1:00 AM

In the midst of election season, debates between presidential candidates capture the headlines. But, here in suburban Chicago, finding an actual debate between candidates is becoming increasingly difficult -- if not impossible for some races.

Eight chapters of the League of Women Voters have joined forces this election season in an effort to change this unhealthy pattern. The league appreciates those candidates who do recognize and fulfill their obligation to engage with voters.

Many local and Illinois General Assembly candidates have been willing to participate in these Q&A-style forums, while many others have not.

Our group of eight leagues will host a forum on Sunday, Oct. 16, at Glenbard South High School, featuring local races including the 23rd Illinois Senate (Seth Lewis, Thomas Cullerton) and the 48th Illinois House (Steve Swanson, Peter Breen) races.

But, with seven of our leagues within the 6th Congressional District, we are particularly disappointed that Peter Roskam declined our invitation to join his opponent, Amanda Howland at the forum. We're frustrated that he provided no alternative dates despite repeated requests. This election will be the fourth consecutive election without Mr. Roskam debating his opponent at a forum.

He's not alone, though. Incumbent Deb Conroy, candidate for state representative in the 46th House district, also declined a league invitation, as did 8th District congressional candidate Raja Krishnamoorthi, and 14th District incumbent U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren.

Indeed, throughout suburban Chicago, candidates from both major parties have rejected efforts from bipartisan organizations, including the League of Women Voters, to host debates or forums, depriving voters of the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates.

We're extremely grateful to all candidates for their willingness to serve in political office. Yet, we also believe that political candidates have an ethical obligation to the democratic process that requires them to appear before their voters in advance of an election.

The notion of a representative democracy, deriving its authority and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, requires that political candidates be willing to present themselves for substantive consideration. This necessarily involves disclosing their views, even in the broadest strokes, on issues of concern to the voting public.

Refusing to appear at debates or question-and-answer forums allows candidates to essentially avoid revealing their stances on controversial matters, thus undermining the voters' ability to properly evaluate their candidacy. Candidates eagerly attend their own fundraisers and partisan events to mingle with donors and supporters, yet they communicate with the wider electorate almost exclusively through one-way methods such as robocalls and glossy mailings.

These one-way contacts allow the candidates to pick and choose which topics to address, and to completely avoid uncomfortable issues. It's frustrating and disappointing when candidates decline invitations to free, nonpartisan events, open to the public, with formats allowing voters to ask questions.

The law prohibits the league from conducting "empty chair" debates, so if one candidate in a two-way race declines an invitation, the debate must be canceled.

Presumably, these candidates evaluate the strategic political benefit to their own campaign and decide against attending, either because of the risk of a costly gaffe or the concern that a joint appearance might raise the profile of lesser-known opponents. Some people suggest that gerrymandered districts generate candidates -- often incumbents or dominant party candidates -- who feel "safe" enough to skip debates.

Whatever the cause, whatever the rationale, ducking debates does serious harm to the voters. The short-term competitive advantage a candidate might hope to gain never justifies disregarding such a fundamental responsibility in the democratic process.

Now, more than ever, it would be refreshing to see candidates appearing together for respectful, substantive discussions of the issues. Their disrespect for the voters and the democratic process is disappointing.

Gail Chaney Kalinich, an international election observer, is Voter Services Chair for the League of Women Voters of Glen Ellyn. Sonja Faulkner and Carrie Burrows, co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of Glen Ellyn, also contributed to this article. Sponsors of the Oct. 16 forum are LWV of Wheaton, LWV of Naperville, LWV of Elmhurst, LWV of Central Kane County, LWV of Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle, LWV of Palatine Area, LWV of McHenry County, and LWV of Glen Ellyn

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