A pandemic presidential election needs a pandemic debate schedule. As things now stand, millions of Americans could send in their ballots before Donald Trump and Joe Biden meet on stage. To prevent that, the Commission on Presidential Debates should add an early faceoff to the lineup.
Going to a polling place this year isn’t a great option. So many people breathing the same air and touching the same surfaces risks the spread of COVID-19. Instead, stay home and vote absentee. It’s safe, easy and secure.
Three-quarters of voters in Wisconsin’s spring election — 1.1 million of them — voted absentee. That number could double for the November general election. County clerks will begin sending ballots on Sept. 17 to registered voters who have filed their absentee requests.
More than a half dozen other states also send out ballots in the middle of September. The list includes fellow swing states Pennsylvania and Michigan.
How informed those early voters will be will partly depend on whether the independent debate commission can nimbly adapt to pandemic realities. The first debate won’t occur until Sept. 29. Two more presidential debates and a vice presidential debate will follow in October.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Wisconsin Senate President Roger Roth recently sent a letter to the commission requesting a presidential debate earlier in September so early voters get a chance to see the candidates in action. They also suggest Wisconsin host that debate, which makes sense given the pivotal role our state played in the election outcome four years ago.
“Wisconsinites who vote early deserve the same opportunity afforded to other states to hear the two competing visions for our country and make a well-informed decision,” they wrote.
Vos and Roth are both Republicans, so they might have an ulterior motive. The campaign that’s behind usually wants more debates, and Trump is behind in the polls nationally and in Wisconsin. He trailed Biden 49-43 in the recent Wisconsin poll, conducted by YouGov and coordinated by the UW-Madison Elections Research Center in collaboration with the Wisconsin State Journal. The campaign in the lead tends not to want more debates because they are opportunities to shake up the race.
Even people with ulterior motives can make a sound argument. Nonpartisan analysts are calling for more debates, too. The commission should focus on creating an informed electorate.
Voters will learn a lot more from the debates than they will from the barrage of television ads in the coming months. There’s more to being president than debating, of course, but the debates show whether leaders can think on their feet, how much they know and how well they can advocate for their policies.
Absentee voters could wait to mail their ballots until after the debates, but that path has its own perils. A ballot could fall to the bottom of the mail pile, lost or forgotten. Even if it’s mailed on time, the ongoing controversies over the U.S. Postal Service and mail delivery slowdowns mean that the sooner it’s postmarked the better the chances of on-time delivery.
The presidential debate schedule is out of sync with these pandemic times. The Commission on Presidential Debates still has time to realign its schedule by bringing Trump and Biden to Wisconsin in the next few weeks.