If you wanted to see what's wrong with pre-election activism these days in Colorado Springs, you needed only to be at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center on the night of Oct. 16.
Obviously, that's not enough information, because 99.9 percent of you weren't among the tiny — let's go ahead and call it embarrassingly tiny — group of people who came to the Citizens Project's election education forum.
From my vantage point as a media panelist on the stage, I counted 70 people in the audience, at most. If you took away the candidates themselves, speakers on ballot issues, campaign supporters and longtime (in other words, intractable) loyalists of both parties, the number of "regular" voters couldn't have numbered more than 20.
It gets worse.
Candidates for the area's state legislative and county commissioner races were invited, meaning that nearly 40 could have taken part. But only seven candidates showed up, including exactly one Republican, incumbent Commissioner Sallie Clark. In the two hottest state Legislature contests, incumbent House District 17 Rep. Mark Barker (R) didn't come out to face opponent Tony Exum Sr. (D), and in HD 18, Rep. Pete Lee (D) made it, while challenger Jennifer George (R) blew it off.
It would have been a total farce, except for spirited debates on state Amendments 64 (legalizing marijuana) and 65 (calling for campaign-finance reform). Regardless, this so-called forum became a sad commentary on where we are now with pre-election events in El Paso County.
They don't matter anymore.
Understand, this is not a hatchet job on Citizens Project. Two decades after its formation, CP continues to serve a valuable purpose in the community, promoting (as noted on its website) "religious freedom through separation of church and state, equality and diversity, and civic engagement." The organization has tried sincerely to educate voters before elections, with forums as well as candidate questionnaires published to help voters make their decisions.
Unfortunately, though, many Republicans look at CP as a liberal entity, instead of nonpartisan. This year, most local GOP candidates also snubbed the Citizens Project questionnaire, with the exceptions of Clark and fellow Commissioner Dennis Hisey.
There's no sense in hand-wringing over this. It's worth acknowledging one well-attended legislative debate, sponsored by the local Forum for Civic Advancement, which attracted both Democrats and Republicans in the three seriously contested state House races. But that one, at the Penrose House's Garden Pavilion, involved e-mail invitations, and the 200 or so spectators were almost all civic leaders or activists of some kind.
What's the answer for everyday people? Or should we forget about forums?
I put that question to KOAA Channel 5 anchor Rob Quirk, who moderated that Penrose House gathering — along with many others in the past, including a mayoral event last year. In my view, he's easily the best at that role in our market.
"I think to a point they do still serve a purpose," Quirk says. "I believe that any time voters, either at the forum itself, or watching or listening in TV or radioland, can hear directly from people they are voting for or against, it's a good thing. But the formats of some of these do little to further the agenda. They promote too many canned answers, and really do a disservice to the voter. ... As a moderator, I feel that time is always the enemy, and you really can't go very deep, or do more follow-ups."
There's the challenge for Citizens Project and any other group trying to stage a credible forum in today's world. My suggestion: Start by looking at the Springs Vision Forum in our mayoral runoff of May 2011, which was put together by young professionals with strong online participation.
Asked about that option, Quirk says, "I think the online forum is a good idea, as a tool to get more feedback perhaps. But as you know, sometimes when you bring the voter or general public into some of these without a good screening process, it can get a little off course."
Granted, that would have to be addressed. But we have to try something new and different, which not only would be fresh and useful to voters, but also an event the candidates could not ignore.
That's the only way to save pre-election forums as we've known them.
Otherwise, they're dead.