September 29, 2020

VOICES Katie Kenney: Voters Deserve a Debate

We were deeply disappointed to learn at the end of last week that the Canton League of Women Voters does not plan to hold its usual debate or candidate forum.  The League’s candidate nights have served a vital function in this fiercely "small-i" independent town, and the League’s last-minute abdication of its usual role will leave Canton voters without valuable information about the candidates on the ballot this November.

After initially proposing their usual, in-person event at Canton High School, about which some candidates expressed COVID-19 safety concerns, the League and the candidates had been considering an online, Zoom (or similar) event.  Such online events have already been held by local Leagues in many towns throughout Connecticut for the primaries, and more are scheduled in those and other towns in upcoming weeks.  On Thursday evening, however, the Canton League informed candidates that no forum would be held, and that the League would simply post the brief, written answers allowed in their voter guide as their only effort to inform Canton voters.

Canton voters are proudly “small-i” independent.  As the Democratic Town Committee Chair, I very often hear, “I don’t vote for party, I vote for the individual.”  We see this borne out not only in our town’s voter registration patterns (by far the plurality of voters are not affiliated with either party), but directly in the outcomes of our elections, in which many Canton voters split their tickets.  When calling voters or knocking on doors, we often hear, “I always wait until the League debate to make up my mind.”

Incumbents are often less eager—or even downright reluctant—to debate.  The advantages of their office include higher visibility and more opportunities to communicate with voters, often at state expense.  These advantages make it even more vital for organizations such as the League, with its mission to educate and inform voters, to provide opportunities for challengers to present themselves to voters.  Debates often present the only chance voters have to compare candidates side-by-side and learn how they respond to questioning on their records and plans.

To make matters worse, both Democratic candidates for state-level office, Melissa Osborne, who is running for state senate, and Eleni Kavros DeGraw, who is running for state representative, have confirmed to me that they are willing and eager to participate in a pandemic-safe, online (Zoom or other platform) Candidates Night with their opponents.  Such a forum could be viewed live and also recorded and made available for all voters to view at their convenience – thus increasing its reach even beyond the usual, in-person forum.  Apparently, the Republican candidates were not willing to participate.  If that is the case, in cancelling the forum rather than permitting any willing candidates to participate, the League not only further advantaged incumbents, but also acceded to the apparent preferences of the two Republicans to avoid public debate.

I have the deepest respect for the League of Women Voters as an organization and feel great warmth for the Canton League in particular.  My mother was a member from before I was born until her death in 2013, she served as its voter education coordinator for many years, and my sisters and I have many memories of digging and dividing perennials from her garden for the League’s plant sales.

I still maintain hope that the Canton League will reverse its decision and hold a safe, online forum to allow voters to see how all candidates answer questions and present their views on a level playing field.  If this does not happen, I urge the Valley Press or another journalistic or civic organization to pick up the banner of voter education that the League has, so unfortunately, laid down.

Katie Kenney, Chair

Canton Democratic Town Committee

Canton DTC Chair Katie Kenney voices concern at the announcement last week by the Canton League of Women Voters that they will not hold their usual debate or candidate forum.

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