Informed choice

It seems some Kansas candidates are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for Kansas voters to cast informed ballots.

The near lack of joint debate or forum appearances by the two major party candidates for Kansas governor has drawn considerable attention across the state, but the gubernatorial candidates aren’t the only ones opting out of such events.

The unwillingness of candidates to participate in voter education events is reaching all the way to the local level.

Republican U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Democratic State Sen. Tom Holland had their first — and probably last — televised debate on Thursday in Wichita. The event included two minor party candidates and ran for less than 30 minutes so it offered a limited opportunity for voters to learn much about the candidates and their positions. Holland has proposed other debates, but Brownback’s campaign says it’s unlikely they will be able to fit more into his schedule.

There have been no debates between Republican U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran and his Democratic challenger, Lisa Johnston, in the race to fill Brownback’s Senate seat. There has been a little more activity in the state’s four congressional races because incumbents in three of those districts weren’t running for re-election, but there have been no debates that we’ve heard about in the 2nd District where incumbent Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins is being challenged by Democrat Cheryl Hudspeth.

Empty chairs also have marked local forums organized by the Voter Education Coalition. Two candidates didn’t participate or send representatives to a legislative forum held last week at City Hall. One declined; the other didn’t even respond to the group’s invitation.

What’s the deal? People trying to organize the debates are being told that it’s largely a political judgment. The candidates declining invitations apparently believe they have nothing to gain by participating in nonpartisan forums or debates. They are better served, politically, by personal appearances where they control the message that is delivered, usually, to highly supportive crowds.

Those appearances work for the candidates, but don’t people seeking election to public office have an obligation also to do what works for voters? While candidates are preaching to their partisan choirs — or simply staying out of sight entirely — voters are learning little about the candidates or their stands on key issues. Without public debates or forums to help them pick a candidate, many people will go to the polls and cast their votes based on little more than name recognition or a candidate’s party affiliation.

In some cases, that’s exactly what candidates are banking on, but that tactic is an injustice to voters and an insult to the democratic process. Candidates — both incumbents and newcomers — should be willing and eager to discuss the issues with their opponents at multiple nonpartisan forums during the election season. They should be willing to face voters who support them, those who oppose them and those who are still making up their minds. All of those voters eventually will be the constituents of the candidate who wins the race and they deserve an opportunity to make an informed choice.