Candidate Forums Perpetuate Systemic Problems

Asking a person to condense a complex response into a sound bite prevents a fair airing of the issues.

I have now thought long and hard about campaign ethics, particularly as they apply to the district 4 election.

I have been asked to comment on a candidate's misrepresentation of his credentials which I have refused to do, but in thinking about this campaign in particular, and campaigns in general, I would like to say the problem is very complex.

In most forums the candidates are permitted only a minute to answer each of many questions, and that alone prevents a fair and adequate airing of the issues.

Even being allowed 2 minutes to open and close is inadequate given a candidate's lifelong record of public service and career accomplishments, yet with seven candidates and reasonable evening events, little more is possible.

I cannot tell you how often I have heard from residents that the issues are rarely clear enough for them to understand them in a public meeting. Staff members acknowledge this but have limited resources to devote to informing the general public. Consultants do their best but also are constricted by economic realities.

So it is understandable that residents often feel excluded and occasionally candidates sacrifice accuracy for sound bite messaging that often is not as accurate as it should be. The problem then is more in the nature of inadequate understanding and lack of sufficient resources than outright misrepresentation, yet even the media is forced to simplify and without even aiming to make accusations, but simply because their readership responds to negative information most easily.

I have no answer for this, and in this campaign have been upset that we candidates speak predominantly about our accomplishments rather than about the issues, and, even regarding the issues, we tend to speak in generalities. Finally, I have tried to emphasize local grass roots solutions to problems rather than look to state or federal assistance for solutions because, based on my experience, we can best help ourselves by focussing on local needs and coming up with local solutions.

This long message is not offered to you as a way to get attention, but to share my thoughts about a bigger problem that I hope we can all work on together.

Andy Cohen is a candidate for the District 4 seat on the San Mateo County Supervisor Board of Supervisors. 

Adina Levin June 02, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Disclosure: I helped organize a forum for League of Women Voters, but I speak only for myself in this comment. This post makes a good point. The common format for forums is a consequence of having a short period of time to address multiple issues and multiple candidates. Busy voters will not spend many hours in a room, listening to candidates discuss issues at length, so the questions and answers need to be concise. But, with today's technology, it should be possible to provide voters with both headlines and depth. On the internet, time and space are not limited in the same way, so the "headlines" of a 90 minute forum can be complemented with in-depth discussions and interviews on key issues. Tools like Youtube and the new Google Hangouts could be used for these focused discussions.


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