With fall unfolding across the Northwest, there’s one more season about to take shape. I’m talking, of course, about election season.

For at least the better part of this year, candidates seeking office in in the state Legislature or Congress have had the chance to fine-tune their campaigns — tweeting, posting and emailing their plans for what they’ll do once elected.

Now, with ballots ready to drop on Oct. 21, it’s time for the candidates to field tough questions about their approaches to some of our state’s and nation’s toughest challenges. And one of the best ways to do that — even in today’s modern world — is through the American tradition of political debate.

Throughout history, debates have played a critical role in our democracy in helping inform the public. In 1858, presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas participated in seven, face-to-face debates without a moderator. In 1960, the first televised debate was held between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and viewed by more than 65 million people. Since 1972, every presidential contest has included televised debates as a vital tool for voter decisions. Even during the pandemic, candidates for public office engaged in political debates.

So why are debates, for any office, still so important?

Unlike political forums, debates are the one venue where candidates must answer questions they don’t want to answer. Candidates are bound by a set of rules, agreed to in advance by each campaign. Questions and answers are moderated, within agreed-upon time limits for responses and rebuttals. And the events are hosted by nonprofit organizations or media outlets, as long as they are not owned or controlled by a political party, committee, or candidate, per Federal Election Commission guidelines.

Perhaps more critically, debates also offer opportunities for contrast, something onlookers don’t often get when candidates participate in less formal candidate forums. A structured format with questions, responses and rebuttals managed by a moderator ensures candidates are accountable to the audience — namely, the voters.  


To ensure access to more candidates across the state this election year, the Washington State Debate Coalition plans to hold and provide statewide access to six moderated candidate debates. The coalition has invited the candidates for the U.S. Senate, Washington Secretary of State, 9th Congressional District, 8th Congressional District and the 26th state Legislative District to participate. As has been reported by Politico, this election cycle is seeing fewer debates between Senate candidates than in the past. The coalition is helping Washington state buck this trend to ensure voters here continue to benefit from widely broadcast and easily accessible debates for top-of-the-ticket races.

The debate coalition was initially organized as a public service by Seattle CityClub, a 42-year-old civics nonprofit formed to help inform and engage people around civic issues. Free public access to candidate debates is made possible through the combined volunteer efforts of nonpartisan organizations, colleges and universities, former civic leaders and media partners.

Each WSDC debate is broadcast and streamed widely to ensure they are available to communities across the state thanks to a number of generous media outlets and community partners. More information on how to access the debates can be found on the Seattle CityClub website. (seattlecityclub.org/wsdc/)

Without question, debates still play a vital role in our democratic process because voters get to see and hear from the candidates directly. From the environment and education to the economy and elections, it is critical that this year’s candidates share their vision for the future and that we provide voters with direct access to these leaders. 

Ultimately, it’s in our own best interest, and that of our democracy, to ensure voters have the information they need to make the best decisions they can before ballots are cast. Because in the words of Nelson Mandela, “An educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy.”