INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The co-president of the Indiana League of Women Voters on Monday said candidates’ refusals to take part in debates robs voters of a chance to compare them.
Multiple chapters of the league, long a sponsor of candidate debates large and small nationwide, report significant numbers of Republicans either turning down or not responding to invitations to take part this year.
In Delaware County, multiple Republican candidates for county offices attended a League of Women Voters forum, but none of the party’s candidates for the General Assembly showed up.
In Monroe County, league leaders said just 16% of Republican candidates have responded to candidate surveys, compared to 56% of Democrats.
In the highest-profile refusal in Indiana this year, Republican Secretary of State candidate Diego Morales turned down a request by the league to take part in a Monday night debate.
“My sole focus is on traveling to all 92 Indiana counties, visiting with Hoosiers to earn their vote this November. I have participated in radio, print and TV interviews and will continue to do so,” he said in a statement.
The event will proceed with Democrat Destiny Wells and Libertarian Jeff Maurer. Both criticized Morales’ decision. Wells said it gives Morales a way to duck questions about his military service and allegations of sexual harassment by two women, while Maurer said the ability to compare candidates is fundamental to civic engagement.
Linda Hanson, a co-president of the league, said choosing not to participate in candidate forums denies voters the chance to hear from current or prospective elected officials and prevents candidates from hearing directly from voters who might not necessarily agree with them.
“Ignoring your constituents can have major, major effects on our democracy down the line,” she said.
For at least one key Republican leader, the issue comes down to fairness.
Mario Massillamany, the Republican Party chair in Hamilton County, said the League of Women Voters chapter in his county has shown clear favoritism toward Democratic candidates. For that reason, he said, he directed all Republican candidates in his county not to participate.
“If they’re not going to make sure that this is equal and fair treatment for everyone, this is going to be a partisan organization, then we will not participate in it,” he said. “Republicans don’t need to participate in Democratic forums and vice versa.”
Massillamany said he told his candidates to focus on knocking on doors and engaging with candidates one-on-one. That echoed a statement from Indiana Republican Chair Kyle Hupfer, who said in a statement that modern means of communication, including social media, make it easier than ever for candidates to reach voters and for voters to review their choices.
Hanson said the problem isn’t exclusive to the Republican Party. She said incumbent Democrats have skipped debates in northwest Indiana in particular. She said she chiefly blames partisan gerrymandering that creates safe seats and thus takes away a key incentive for candidates to try to reach as many voters as possible.
Massillamany said Republicans will return to League of Women Voters forums if the organization works closely with his party to create a fair process from start to finish.
Hanson said her Delaware County chapter might have hit on a good combination. The chapter contacted a variety of stakeholder groups in the community including the progressive-leaning Muncie Resists and the conservative-leaning Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government when they put on their forum on Sept 15. Candidates from both parties who participated told her afterward they felt the forum was very well done and they would like to do it again sometime.
The Indiana Debate Commission hosts debates for statewide offices but does not usually host debates for administrative offices such as secretary of state. The League of Women Voters chose to hold one of its own due to the newfound focus on election officials in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
The commission will hold a debate for Indiana’s U.S. Senate candidates. Republican incumbent Todd Young, Democrat Tom McDermott and Libertarian James Sceniak all will take part.