It looks very likely there will be a Indiana Secretary of State debate this year, and that there will be at least two participants. Surprisingly, it appears Republican incumbent Connie Lawson may refuse to take part.
Yesterday Democrat Jim Harper and Libertarian Mark Rutherford formally invited Lawson to join them in their discussions with the Indiana Debate Commission. Despite the importance of the office, Lawson has yet to respond.
Secretary of State debate announced
As the person responsible for ensuring a free, transparent election process in the State of Indiana, Lawson’s silence on the issue of a debate is surprising.
In an unusual move, two of her opponents jointly issued a video inviting Lawson to join them on the debate stage. They also clearly implied that the debate was happening, with or without her.
“We believe that voters deserve to hear the opportunity from each candidate on the ballot this November,” Jim Harper says in the video.
Standing literally shoulder to shoulder with his opponent, Mark Rutherford agrees and says, “Today we are pleased to announce a debate on issues facing Hoosiers will be held between Indiana’s Secretary of State candidates.”
The two then explain that they are in talks with the Indiana Debate commission, and then both appeal for Lawson to take part.
“Secretary Lawson, please accept our joint invitation,” Harper says in his conclusion.
Nearly twenty-four hours after the release of the video, Connie Lawson has yet to respond.
Two candidates speak, one is silent
Speaking to News Growl, Democratic candidate Jim Harper explained why he thought a Secretary of State debate was important.
“The security and fairness of our elections is so critical and so endangered, I believe we owe it to Hoosier voters to transparently discuss our plans for the Secretary of State’s office,” he said. “Just as we should be making voting more easily accessible, we should be giving voters the opportunity to hear from all candidates in one forum.”
Libertarian candidate Mark Rutherford agreed, saying in a separate email, “I believe that the best way for candidates to communicate their vision to voters is via a vigorous debate platform. I am pleased Jim Harper and I agree that Hoosiers deserve to hear directly from all candidates appearing on Election Day ballots. I sincerely hope Secretary Lawson will take this opportunity to join us on stage to discuss our differing opinions.”
News Growl sought a response from Secretary Lawson but received no reply.
The Indiana Debate Commission
A rare example of non-partisan debate oversight in American politics, the Indiana Debate Commission has confirmed to News Growl its involvement in the Secretary of State debate discussions.
Commission President Gerry Lanosga explained that while the Commission will not be the official organizers of the debate, it is happy to provide informal guidance about logistics.
“As an all-volunteer nonprofit, we don’t have the capacity yet to organize debates below the Senate and gubernatorial level, though we would like to at some point,” Lanosga explained. “Our position, given our mission of informing voters, is that we are glad to see others organize debates like this and happy to help if we can.”
Lanosga also told us that a candidate refusing to attend a debate is very rare in Indiana politics. “In our 19 debates over the last 10 years,” he said, “we’ve always had full participation from candidates.”
Is a Secretary of State debate important?
Although the race lacks the high profile of a gubernatorial or US Senate race, Indiana’s Secretary of State election is surprisingly important.
Under Indiana law it is the Secretary of State’s race that determines which parties have automatic ballot status, and which two parties control the Indiana Election Commission. If Lawson was to deny voters the opportunity to engage fully with the process, she would be in effect obscuring one of the most important decisions Hoosiers will make on November 8th.
Also, with questions being asked publicly about Connie Lawson’s eligibility to serve for another full four year term, voters arguably deserve to hear from Lawson what will happen if she is forced to resign from office in 2020.
Perhaps the most compelling reason why Lawson should want to take part in the Secretary of State debate is the example it sets, both for the candidates Lawson herself regulates, and Indiana voters generally.
In 2014, Lawson announced a government-funded mock-election program for Indiana schools, which provided resources for students of all ages to “hold activities such as debates and school campaigns.” In the announcement, Lawson explained the importance of full participation in elections.
“We must teach our young people the importance of civic engagement from an early age…By teaching students that elections are decided by those that show up, we can influence the next generation of voters to participate in the process.
If Lawson really believes that “elections are decided by those who show up,” she now has an excellent opportunity to prove it in the Secretary of State debate.
Connie Lawson, where are you?
Connie Lawson launched her re-election bid a full eighteen months ago with a campaign video. “I will work tirelessly to protect our elections,” she said before adding, “I look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail around the state.”
So far her campaign appears to be anything but tireless, and very few voters are getting the chance to see her on the campaign trail. Other than a handful of safe, closed-door GOP events, her campaign twitter feed only shows only one public campaign event in the last month (the Popcorn Festival in Valparaiso on September 8th).
With such a light campaigning schedule, finding the time to show up for a Secretary of State debate should be straightforward for Lawson.
Her campaign team has certainly not been overwhelmed by responding to media enquiries. Despite repeated attempts to get responses from Lawson’s campaign for several News Growl stories, no reply has ever been received. Emails to the Lawson’s Secretary of State email get replies from staffers, referring enquiries to the campaign. As her campaign is based in a UPS Store across the street from the Indiana Statehouse, it is not possible to visit the office in person, and it has no listed phone number.