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COMMENTARY: Early Voting and Debates

Debating holds a storied place in the American political tradition.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates between two Senate candidates in Illinois in 1858 made a household name out of a one-term congressman, putting Abraham Lincoln on the path to the presidency two years later.

Americans have come to expect their presidential candidates to debate, with three different events the norm in recent elections. Candidates can use them to display their preparedness, their capacity to think on their feet, and their ability to handle opposition.

Some debate moments are remembered long after the campaigns conclude, and a few debate performances are seen now as decisive to a presidential election’s outcome.

In 1960, during the tightly-contested race between Vice President Richard Nixon and the less experienced Senator John F. Kennedy, Kennedy’s polished style and presidential appearance in the first general election presidential debate ever televised handed him a win in the eyes of most television viewers (radio listeners were more likely to think the debate a draw or even a win for Nixon).

During a 1976 presidential debate between incumbent President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” At a time when much of Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, Ford’s statement seemed to be a major gaffe. Carter went on to win the election narrowly.

Four years later, Carter faced former California Governor Ronald Reagan in a single debate the week before the election. Their contest was seen as close, with Carter attempting to paint Reagan as too extreme. Reagan effectively used the encounter to put these notions to rest, famously parrying a Carter attack with “There you go again.” A close race became a Reagan landslide.

Presidential debates matter, but they can only have an impact if a voter has yet to cast his or her ballot. However many debates the candidates take part in this year, their meaning will be diminished by early voting.

The Virginia General Assembly changed the Commonwealth’s voting laws earlier this year. Early voting is now allowed within 45 days of the election.

If this law had been in effect in previous years, a voter could have cast a ballot before the Kennedy-Nixon debates (the first took place on September 26, 1960), before Ford said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” (October 6, 1976), and before Reagan told Carter, “There you go again” (October 28, 1980).

Moments that apparently changed many minds, perhaps enough minds to alter the outcome of the election, occurred within the 45-day window. More broadly, campaigns are debates between candidates and platforms, and voting so far ahead of time is like shutting off a debate with a long list of questions yet to be asked.

Compounding the effect of this change is the encouragement to vote by absentee ballot or vote early to avoid the effects of the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has thoroughly upended many typical practices and behaviors in all parts of life, and we should not suppose that voting would be an exception. Especially for those most endangered by the coronavirus, I encourage appropriate precautions to safely exercise the right to vote.

I know that many residents of the Ninth District, however, want to vote in person on Election Day. Casting a ballot is an important civic responsibility, and the citizens of our region are no shirkers.

Debates have proven to be decisive before, and they have been incorporated into the political customs of our republic. Considering the value of debates, voters should not feel pressured to vote before they have all the information they need to make a considered decision.

Congressman Morgan Griffith

To reach my office via email, please visit my website at Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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