Questioning Candidates for Elected Office is Central to Democracy
By Steve Smith
Every year around election time, a media outlet writes about organizations asking candidates to fill out questionnaires, insinuating that there’s something unethical – if not downright sleazy – about the practice. The stories are full of loaded language calling questionnaires things like “covenants” hammered out in “secret backroom deals.”
So should the media be sounding the alarm of about these so-called secret contracts? Hardly.
When groups like the California Labor Federation want to know where a candidate stands on issues important to our members – in our case things like raising wages and protecting retirement security for all workers – we ask that the candidates fill out a questionnaire so we can evaluate their positions. Questionnaires are vital tools in helping our members make informed choices about which candidates to support. This process allows for those decisions to be grounded in policy. It also helps us hold candidates accountable.
We all know that far too many politicians like to say one thing when running for office and do another when they are elected. A questionnaire doesn’t stop them from going back on their word. But it does allow us to say “Hey, wait a minute, you said you were against this issue when you ran for office and now you’re voting for it.”
So what’s the problem? In reality, there is none. No elected official is bound by a questionnaire. But if elected officials go back on their word, it’s a tool to hold them accountable. The real issue behind these stories about candidate questionnaires is about two things. One, the media doesn’t have access to the questionnaires. And two, media-savvy politicians like State Senator Steve Glazer exploit the issue to further their own agendas.
So let’s address the first issue. Why not give the media access to all questionnaires candidates fill out? Pretty simple, really. Our goal is to solicit the most truthful answers as possible. When we ask the candidate to state a clear position on an issue like the minimum wage, we don’t want to hear the candidate’s stock answer on the stump. We want the honest truth. By keeping the questionnaire internal, that gives us a better chance of getting straightforward responses.
The second issue is the one that drives me crazy. Glazer used his refusal to fill out questionnaires as a campaign rallying cry. He posted blank questionnaires on his website to ostensibly make the point that he was for transparency. Yet, he never answered any questions. In effect, his “transparency” was meaningless. And for some unknown reason, the media gave him a pass. Glazer never told reporters clearly where he stood on many issues. And by refusing to answer questionnaires, he didn’t allow for anyone to determine what his positions on a host of important issues actually were. So, good luck holding him accountable now because he never actually told anyone in clear terms what he was going to do in office. Is that the type of transparency we’re looking for?
Bottom line is that questionnaires are one of many tools groups like us use in the evaluative process. And, in our case, they allow for working people to hold elected officials accountable when they go back on their word. If media outlets want more transparency, they should question the candidates directly and press those candidates when they give unclear or incomplete responses.
Questioning those who want to run for office is central to informed democracy. I’d argue we need more of that, not less.