GOP and League of Women Voters spar, and the public loses

League of Women Voters debates have been a staple of Charlotte elections for many years.
League of Women Voters debates have been a staple of Charlotte elections for many years. 2004 Observer file photo

Elections in America have, more often than not, been a battle of ideas. But what if going forward there is no battle?

The League of Women Voters has been holding candidate forums in Charlotte for as long as anyone can remember. But the one it held Thursday was different: In multiple races, only one side showed up. Republicans are largely skipping the League’s debates this year, saying the group and its cosponsors are biased.

Sens. Dan Bishop and Jeff Tarte, both incumbent Republicans in hotly contested races, did not attend Thursday night’s event. The League’s president, Delores Hurt, said most of the Republican candidates for the NC House also have declined to participate in the League’s forum scheduled for Tuesday night.

These candidates may or may not face off elsewhere. But for now, in one of the most pivotal NC midterm elections of recent years, voters are being deprived of hearing the issues debated in what has traditionally been one of the primary venues for that.

Who has the better case in this squabble is debatable. But we’re more concerned with whether this episode is the canary in the coal mine. In our ever-polarizing world, is this an indication of things to come? Are we quickly headed toward a time when it is just accepted that there are no political debates because any potential sponsor could be regarded as biased in one way or another? That’s far too easy to imagine and is bad news for the prospective quality of our government. Thirty-second attack ads and direct mail flyers hardly suffice for creating informed voters.

Hurt, the League’s president, argues that the League is nonpartisan. It does not endorse candidates and, she says, is extremely cognizant of rooting out any appearance of bias in the questions it asks at candidate forums.

The League is the lead sponsor among 16 involved with this year’s forums. Some of the others, while perhaps technically nonpartisan, would certainly never be confused with conservative groups. They include Health Care Justice NC (which seeks a single-payer health care system), the Charlotte Black Women’s Caucus, MomsRising, the National Organization of Women and others.

The League has sued North Carolina’s Republican legislature over its gerrymandered congressional maps. Hurt, while defending the League’s nonpartisan status, told the Observer editorial board: “When you have a party that’s doing everything it can to suppress the vote, then the League is going to take steps to see that everyone in this country has the opportunity to express their views.”

Given all that, the Republican candidates’ reaction is not surprising. Bishop said he has seen the League of Women Voters evolve over the years from a nonpartisan organization to a leftist one. He said the community needs debates in which each side can make its case. “But it’s hard to do when the moderator is in the tank for the other side.”

Republican county commissioner Jim Puckett did attend Thursday night’s forum and said the questions to him were fair, but that the ones to Senate candidates were more biased. He thinks debate organizers need to be even-handed, but that he attends events regardless.

“I don’t know why anyone avoids any debate,” he told the editorial board. “Anytime you engage those who disagree with you, it’s an opportunity to change their mind or at least convince them that you’re not an idiot.”