Editorial: 2020 could be year without complete candidate forum

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 15, 2020

An unfortunate side effect of COVID-19 is that opportunities are fewer and farther between for undecided voters to evaluate candidates for office.

In a normal year, voters usually can count on one candidate forum where all candidates will be present — one organized by the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. Because of the mission of the chamber, questions are more often business-focused, but it remains one of the best resources for voters of all types.

Sometimes meet-and-greets and other times full-fledged forums, Livingstone College and Catawba College have been sites for events. The Salisbury-Rowan NAACP usually organizes a forum. The Salisbury-Rowan Realtors Association has been known to invite candidates to speak. The Rowan County Tea Party still meets regularly and has invited candidates to speak in recent history.

Gathering restrictions and health concerns, however, have made it more challenging to host a safe in-person event this year.

Most candidates have embraced the internet as a platform for campaigning, and there have been some virtual events. There are candidates, however, who do not feel comfortable with online forums and worry about an opponent’s ability to be prompted with answers. As a result, scheduled forums this year have been held without a complete slate of candidates for office.

Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican seeking re-election to the 76th House District seat, skipped out on participating in a virtual forum held by the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP. His opponent, Al Heggins, a Democrat who serves as the city’s mayor pro tem, participated. During the NAACP’s event, Heggins said that she didn’t want to spend too much time talking negatively about Warren (she called him “my opponent”) because he was not in attendance. Heggins said she hoped that he would participate in the Chamber of Commerce’s forum.

Less than one week later, on Tuesday night, she spoke briefly and left an in-person forum, saying that she was concerned about her health and the fact that participants were allowed to keep their masks off when seated. Plexiglass shields were not sufficient. After giving an opening statement, she left and challenged Warren to an all-virtual debate.

With early voting starting today, 2020 will be unusual in that a race with potential to be one of the most competitive — the 76th House District — will be without a complete forum, virtual or otherwise, during which voters can directly compare candidates. In another highly competitive election — the east area school board race between Brian Hightower and Kathy McDuffie Sanborn — there hasn’t yet been any forums we’re aware of in which both have participated.

A good resource for voters is the Post’s voters guide, which published on Tuesday in print and is available online. For legislative candidates, the Post also conducted video interviews and placed answers about COVID-19, redistricting and the economy on side-by-side at salisburypost.com/2020-voters-guide. We’re working to do the same with as many issues as possible.

In a nation as divided as ever, it might be the case that voters have made up their minds about national and state races, but the public deserves some way to directly compare local candidates and their positions in a forum format.