PRESS EDITORIAL: Incumbents take cover in face of voter forums

What is it about the League of Women Voters that frightens Jim Ott, Dan Knodl and Robert Brooks?
    The three men are Republican incumbents running for re-election as state representatives in safe Republican districts, yet they are hiding behind a screen of ridiculous demands contrived to save them from answering voters’ questions at forums organized by the Ozaukee County chapter of the League of Women Voters.
    The Ott-Knodl-Brooks trio shirked the duty of explaining their positions on issues to voters by working as a team to sabotage the forums.
    Ozaukee League members had planned the voter forums in a format that has been successful through many elections. The candidates would appear with their opponents in a public setting in their own districts—Ott and Liz Sumner in District 23 (which includes part of Mequon); Knodl and Emily Siegrist in District 24 (parts of Mequon, Grafton and Cedarburg); and Brooks and Chris Rahlf in District 60 (northern Ozaukee County).
    The challengers readily agreed to the one-on-one format. But the incumbents sought safety in numbers and insisted that the three of them appear together in a single forum. The League called their bluff and agreed to the demand.
    The incumbents responded not with a thank you for the concession to give them the opportunity to make their cases to voters, but with more demands, including influence over the forum questions and the choice of a moderator.
    LWV chapter President Barbara Hunt explained: “The demands just kept coming. It was fairly clear there would be no end to this. It just got to be impossible.”
    The incumbents tried to evade responsibility for the result—the cancellation of the forums—by suggesting that the forums would be unfair because the League of Women Voters is not a nonpartisan organization.
    In its mission statement, the organization makes its status clear: “The League is proud to be nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or political parties at any level of government.” Beyond that, its voter forums are models of fairness and commitment to the nonpartisan ethic.
    Only questions from voters are asked at the forums. The questions are submitted in advance. League members eliminate questions that include personal attacks on candidates or pertain to issues not relevant to the offices the candidates at the forum are seeking. No hot-button national issues are allowed to intrude into forums for state offices. Each candidate gets the same questions and exactly the same opportunity to answer them.
    League voter forums have traditionally been so rigidly structured that they have tended to be a bit staid, heavy on serious policy talk, devoid of fireworks. They have little in common with candidate debates.
    So, what motivated the assemblyman trio to dodge the forums? Assuming they did not harbor some fantasy that the deck was stacked against them because the forum sponsor is a women’s organization and their election opponents all happen to be women, was it that they distrusted the League because its positions on several issues differ from theirs?
    The League of Women Voters has been a staunch advocate of redistricting based on population rather than political advantage for one party or another. The three incumbents, understandably, are big fans of Wisconsin’s most recent redistricting, which was so gerrymandered for Republican political advantage that it is the subject of ongoing litigation.
    The LWV has also been active in educating voters in meeting the requirements of voting restrictions enacted by the state Legislature with the support of the three incumbents.
    These LWV positions may make the incumbent candidates uncomfortable, but they are not evidence of partisan bias.
    If forcing the cancellation of the forums was intended as a slap at the League, it missed the target—because it is the voters who are being deprived, citizens who are being denied an opportunity to learn about candidates and issues in a scrupulously fair and nonpartisan presentation.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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