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Ivy Harper

Ivy Harper (Courtesy photo)

 

In his Oct. 19 “Fort Report,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry wrote, “The sine qua non of a Republic is free and fair elections.”

True, and under the overarching banner of that lofty line, Americans believe that fair federal and state elections should include the traditional three debates: one for the media to question candidates, one for the public to do the same and one where the candidates themselves get to question each other without formal moderators cutting them off.

Yet, Rep. Fortenberry, who first won the 1st Congressional District seat in 2004, has not debated his duly elected Democratic opponents for 12 years. His last formal debate came against Maxine Moul in 2006. (Full disclosure: I ran against Fortenberry in 2010 as his Democratic challenger.)

A solution: The Nebraska Legislature must swiftly establish an independent Nebraska Debate Commission, as have Utah and Indiana, the latter of which boasts the motto “Putting voters first.”

To that point, I cite the one debate between Republican Sen. Deb Fischer and her challenger, Democrat Jane Raybould. My 92-year-old mother, Charlotte, and I attended that at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning in August at the State Fair and were stunned by the setup.

The 100-plus debate attendees in the audience were instructed at the outset not to talk, clap, guffaw, hoot, holler, interrupt or ask questions. Bottom line: It felt as if we, the people, were not allowed to participate in the debate process.

The high-profile spat over debates in this year's gubernatorial race -- with the collapse of a previously agreed-upon debate between Gov. Pete Ricketts and state Sen. Bob Krist -- underscores just how critical it is that the Legislature makes certain that any Nebraska Debate Commission includes stakeholders that both Democrats and Republicans believe will be fair.

Most Americans understand that CNN is perceived as liberal and Fox News as conservative. Likewise, the commission should guarantee fairness with respect to what media representatives and outlets are selected.

Incumbency offers a host of built-in advantages; one of them should not be an unfair right to refuse to engage in spirited, informative, personality-revealing debates with qualifying opponents.

By contrast, Republican Rep. Don Bacon debated Democrat Kara Eastman several times; their final Omaha debate was aired nationally on C-SPAN last Tuesday -- and it was a riveting broadcast.

Anecdotal reports from states with debate commissions reveal that only the creation of official debate commissions has prodded comfortable incumbents into the debate arena, thereby eliminating the patently unfair “debate about the debates.”

The sad irony: Lincoln is named after President Abraham Lincoln, who earned his iconic status during the seven Great Debates with Illinois incumbent U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas.

Jessica McClure deserved three debates with Rep. Fortenberry, and Jane Raybould deserved two more with Sen. Fischer. Ditto for Sen. Krist.

Ricketts, Fortenberry and Fischer are articulate, intelligent, dedicated public servants; they should welcome the opportunity to not simply talk or write about fair elections but to willingly walk the walk of election fairness.

After all, it is the sine qua non of a republic.

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Ivy Harper, a Lincoln native, is a writer, author and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

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