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The Incredible Shrinking Democracy

Want to know what your representatives actually believe or where they would vote an issue? It's getting harder and harder to find out as they become less and less accessible.

For much of the last six weeks my colleagues and I here at Patch have spent a great deal of time attempting to make candidates for elected office available to voters through debates and forums.

This has not been easy, as anyone who has planned an event can attest. Finding the right date and venue is hard enough. But in some cases, candidates request to sit while others request to stand. Or they prohibit videotaping, but encourage still photos. Or vice versa. Or they request to sit to their opponents’ right. I can’t help but wonder what negotiations take place for presidential debates.

While it has been a rewarding process, unfortunately we have not been able to hold nearly as many events as we would have liked. The reason for this is simple—incumbents have very little interest in participating. And it’s not as though there are a lot of races. In the State Senate, for example, there are 46 seats up for grabs, but there are only 13 races where voters actually have a choice and four of those are due to retirements. The number of Senate races that are actually competitive can be counted on one hand. The situation in the House isn’t much better.

When I asked one incumbent about his refusal to debate he said, “Why would I debate someone I know I’m going to beat by 40 points and give them equal standing?”

Another candidate, via a spokesperson, said that unless we could guarantee a turnout of 300 people, it wasn’t worth it. The candidate’s time was better spent raising funds.

There was another candidate who refused to attend a forum because he doesn’t like speaking in public.

If I’m going to be critical, I must also praise three incumbents who were more than willing to share the stage with their opponent and were very accommodating with their time—Sen. Larry Martin in Senate 2, House Speaker Bobby Harrell from House 114 and Rep. Joan Brady in House 78.

Unfortunately, they were the exception.

And the thing is, I can’t say I really blame them. If I were advising incumbents, I would discourage debating a challenger too, no matter how close the race might be. This is the way the game is played in 2012.

Go out and raise as much money as possible, shake a lot of hands and don’t commit to any specific policies that would allow your opponent to attack you. Talk about common sense budgeting and good governance and lower taxes. Things on which any sentient being would agree.

Then take all that money you raised (from who knows where) and carpet bomb your opponent with attack ads in the last two weeks of the race, so the only thing casual voters can remember about the challenger come election day is what they heard in an attack ad. It’s deeply cynical. And very effective.

The result is that we have a situation, in a country that claims to be the beacon of freedom, where there are very few races period and when there is a race, the incumbent usually refuses to engage the challenger and therefore gets re-elected about 90 percent of the time. The representatives of the citizenry rarely meet with the public they are supposed to serve and the divide between constituent and politician is only growing. It’s the stuff of 1980s Romania.

The only way it will change is for the public to demand it. Like the folks with Operation Lost Vote, who realized instantly that it was no accident that the candidates purged from ballots last Spring were all challengers.

Demand to know where incumbents are getting their money (in a timely fashion). Demand at least one debate between all candidates for state office. Demand accountability. It’s the only democracy we’ve got.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Tom Utley October 31, 2012 at 05:15 PM
What forum did Harrell attend other than the Legend Oaks HOA Forum? Also, the general election is "too late" to start paying attention. By that time, the two major parties have circled the wagons, and they're only going to do what is good for their candidates, no matter if their candidate is worth a damn or not. This year is especially egregious, seeing as the party leaders completely messed up the filing process, giving candidates erroneous information for their primary races, which resulted in the primary challengers being thrown off the ballots. This means the incumbent Republicans (who spend money like drunken sailors, BTW) would have no challenge at all if it wasn't for the petition candidates. Anyhow, if you want to have a choice in politics, especially here in South Carolina, you have to get involved well before the primaries. Find your candidate in your party's primary that you support and work for them and encourage others to vote for them. The only chance you have at beating the good ol' boys is supporting a good primary candidate. The two parties make sure that it's almost impossible for a third party to win, or for a petition candidate to win. I hope some of the petition candidates pull off the upset this year, like John Steinberger, but I would just encourage everyone to pay more attention to the primaries, 'cause that's the only time you have a choice.
Lindsay Street October 31, 2012 at 06:03 PM
Thanks for the great post, Shawn! I want to add the every GOP incumbent attended Patch's GOP primary debate, and those who were challenged during the primary sat down with voters for Patch's Coffee with the Candidates. During this election cycle, both incumbents on the school board took part in our school board debate. Our track record has been good here, but it could always get better.
Richard Hayes October 31, 2012 at 06:29 PM
The problem with debates is that the few people that come tend to be cheerleaders for each candidate -- thus who is the candidate addressing? And the newspapers and TV do a HORRIBLE job of covering any debate. PATCH has done much better than print or TV. I commend PATCH for their efforts.
Justin Farnsworth October 31, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Can't speak for all the School Board Candidates, but I know I have personally enjoyed the debates and forums put on this year. The event Patch did at Pilot's was top notch. Thank you!
Shawn Drury October 31, 2012 at 11:16 PM
100 percent correct Tom. Because so many of the districts have been gerrymandered to benefit the incumbent party, there a very few competitive local races in November. The challenge to an incumbent comes from within his or her own party in the primary season, that's when people need to start paying closer attention. Unfortunately, many voters just don't tune in until after Labor Day and in South Carolina, by then, most races have been decided.

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