Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rethinking the Town Hall, Debate, and Public Forum

I have attended a number of town halls, focus groups, and political discussions in the last two years.

The League of Women Voters invites members of the audience to submit questions. I have attended these forums since 2012, when I started getting active in politics, particularly assembly and Congressional candidates. Bill Bloomfield and Henry Waxman visited local forums throughout the South Bay, and also attended a Neighborhood Council meeting in Venice. Instead of answering questions, the two candidates in Venice gave a five minute presentation on themselves, their records of accomplishment, and their platforms for governance.

File:Town hall meeting - 2010.jpg

Like a number of attendees, I was interested in gotcha questions to expose the poor policies of political opponents. At one town hall, I was shut down by the moderator up front, since he was a good friend of Congressman Henry Waxman and he did not want anyone to remind voters of his negative record.

In 2013, I attended a town hall in El Camino Village. Rep. Maxine Waters spoke in the local church about Covered California and the Affordable Care Act. After a two-hour presentation on Covered California, members of the audience were granted an opportunity to share their concerns, make comments, and ask questions. I waited in line for ten minutes as one person after another shared their thoughts.

The first lady who spoke had driven all the way from Encino, to report that death panels were not included in the first draft of the ACA, but incorporated later. Rep. Waters denied the allegation. Other residents in the district talked about the economic hardships they face, the medical problems they cope with. One employee complained about the part-time status he entered as a janitor following implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The Maxine Waters town hall was not very good. Boring for the first two hours, then animated with tedium from different people sharing their thoughts, I had expected more people to be angry with the Congresswoman. Most of the members were fawning sycophants, while other members had serious questions. Waters did not give serious answers. I could not stand to let her and her co-hosts lie to me about the claimed successes of the federal overreach.

Later that year, the school board races in Manhattan and Hermosa Beach, as well as Torrance, were in full swing. I found those forums engaging and lively, as well as informative. As far as the Torrance school board debates, though, they seemed to have little impact. Martha Deutsch said little, offered nothing substantive, and won the most votes.

Martha Deutsch (Torrance School Board Member)
How did Deutsch manage to win so many votes, with so little to win on? She was well-known among parents and community volunteers. She worked with her children's PTA programs. She had hired a consultant, too. The voters who cared about the school board turned out for her, when the vast majority of voters didn't know didn't care, and didn't vote.

What's the point in having a candidate forum, then, unless a dedicated cadre of voters show up and make a difference?

The Manhattan Beach race was the most interesting, since only one incumbent was running, and two other candidates would run (out of only three running). The parents and families involved in Manhattan schools take their education and the politics associated with all of it very seriously. The Hermosa Beach school board race was the most interesting. One incumbent was running, with two other seats open. Eleven people were running. Getting their names and ideas out was a difficult task.

Voters who cared would be well-informed. The voters who made a difference didn't attend these debates. Well-informed people are not deciding elections. That is wrong.

In 2014, candidates assembled for the Torrance City Council race. Sixteen showed up for different forums throughout the city. Instead of questions from the audience, different leaders put together their own set of questions. Because of the large number, only four candidates at a time would respond to questions. Once in a while, other candidates could share their ideas or concerns.

I tried to contact candidates on my own, and some of them responded. Others did not (and likely did not have to). Those candidates who did respond to my set of questions gave me more insight about whom I wanted to vote for and why.

File:US Army 52331 Workforce briefed on Army Family Covenant during Town Hall meeting.jpg
Town Hall Meeting

Once again, very few people voted, and those who sought to be well-informed likely had little impact on the outcomes of the race.

Later this year, I attended a debate/town hall with Republican Congressional candidates Elan Carr and John Wood, Jr.  They presented themselves, and answered questions posed by a moderator as well as questions from the audience. The structure of the meeting was uneven, and the moderator did not inform time limit for answers. These boundaries are crucial. At least they answered my questions.

In the last two years, I have attended a number of open forums, town halls, and other question and answer sessions.

Sometimes I have to wonder what is the point for these meetings? Individual voters speak to their legislators, air grievances, complain about their leaders, get evasive or non-answers.

The League of Women Voters forums are the best, in my opinion, because candidates answer questions which a neutral party asks. As long as the audience is relatively small, everyone will know that they will get some kind of answer from their questions.

On the other hand, town hall meetings, where men and women can shout at their leaders, seems like an empty play. People go through the motions, vent their feelings, offer their concerns, but do the representatives really have to listen? Do they have to care what anyone thinks? Rep. Waters sure doesn't. She is guaranteed to win every two years, and despite the long-laid plans of her current Republican challenger, she is likely to cruise to election once again. Disappointing.

To me, these town halls give residents the thin impression that they are making a difference, changing minds, engaging residents. In reality, town halls with representatives look more like plain attempts to appease concerned citizens, while giving interested parties an attempt to vent. Forums where individuals can ask questions about candidates are meaningful and effective, especially in non-partisan races.

Still, do town halls, debates, and public forums make a difference? Are they worth the effort? Do informed voters influence elections? Well-intentioned voters are not well-influential voters, it seems. I wonder if voters can change this trend. Is there an easier way not just to inform but to motivate voters?

Do these town hall meetings change the minds of our elected officials? Do these events really shape the course of history? The effects appear hit-and-miss for the most part. No matter how much an individual yells, a politician is not going to worry. The examples I cited above, along with videos I have seen, suggest that these forums can be cathartic for residents, they do not influence policy.

When citizens unite to shift opinion or threaten a politician's election chances, then they change their minds. When an elected official fears for his position, then a public forum can give frustrated constituents a chance to state their case, and make their concerns stick.

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