Journalists should ask specific questions in candidate questionnaires

Publishing the basic positions of candidates, on specific issues and ballot questions, falls into the basic public-service function that journalism shouldn’t let go of, despite the hard times.

But if The Denver Post–or Fox 31 or 9News or KOA or any news outlet–is going to publish candidate surveys (and someone should), please ask specific questions that allow voters to compare candidates in the most meaningful way.

Here’s an example of what a huge difference specificity can make.

In 2008, both the Rocky Mountain News and The Post published candidate questionnaires.

The Rocky’s, which was far superior, asked four broad questions about why the candidate was running for office and his or her priorities. This was followed by a series of very specific yes/no questions, including queries on the death penalty, Roe v. Wade, illegal immigration, and vouchers, as well as questions about whether the candidate supported each of the ballot questions facing voters in the 2008 election.

The Post, on the other hand, asked broad questions about transportation, education, health care, and natural resources, as well as a “wild-card” question.

Among the Rocky’s questions, two were focused on a women’s right to choose.

The first addressed Roe v. Wade.

Here’s how Ken Summers, who was running for HD 22, answered the question:

The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Do you agree with the decision?

Summers: No

In the candidate’s words: Even if abortion is held to be legal, to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest, it is difficult to view it as a constitutional right. I have always viewed constitutional rights as those that are commonly exercised and essential to a free society.

For comparison, in his response to the Rocky, here’s how Ali Hasan, who was running for HD 56 answered it.

Hasan: Yes

In the candidate’s words: It is important to note that I agree that the federal ban against 7- to 9-month abortion should always be upheld.

Another Rocky question addressed personhood, which would outlaw all abortion and common forms of birth control.

While Shawn Mitchell declined to answer, Summers responded as follows:

Do you support Amendment 48? It would ban abortion by defining personhood as beginning at fertilization.

Summers: Yes

In the candidate’s words: A new baseline for this issue is needed. Clarifications will be needed.

Ali Hasan stated flatly in his questionnaire that opposed Amendment 48.

The closest thing The Post’s 2008 questionnaire had to these fun and exciting questions (and answers) was a broad question on the role of state government in providing health insurance, which is important, to be sure, but fails to illuminate narrow, and easily comparable, views on health insurance issues generally, and, specifically, on the topic of a women’s right to choose. In fact, not Summers, Mitchell, nor Hasan voluntarily brought up abortion issues in their answers. The Post’s question, which has unfortunately been removed from its website, was:

Health Care: What role do you see for the state in providing or ensuring health insurance for every Coloradan? What policies do you propose to achieve your vision of health care coverage in Colorado?

So, obviously, The Post’s question is important, but Rocky’s approach had to have been of more use to voters.

I’m hoping that this year the Rocky’s 2008 “Ballot Builder” will be a model for journalists in town.

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