By Kevin Wilson
A former Portales resident is part of a group trying to bring a grassroots feel to the national presidential debates.
Heather Balas, a 1987 graduate of Portales High School and 1991 graduate of Eastern New Mexico University, is the director of voter education for the non-profit, non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
One of the main functions of the commission is DebateWatch, which encourages people to organize group viewings of the debates and collects surveys on the viewers’ impressions of the debates and each candidate.
“I think that voter education projects like DebateWatch do two things,” Balas said. “One, they get citizens involved in their communities. It also accomplishes the ability for the citizens themselves to come to understand the policies and be able to influence those issues better.”
The feedback, Balas said, is compiled and delivered to people that the commission feels could benefit from the information. For example, Balas said that information from the previous debates has been compiled and given to Bob Schieffer, CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent and the moderator of Wednesday’s debate in Tempe, Ariz. Schieffer is under no obligation to use the information.
Balas, who has recently moved to Albuquerque, said she works on a paid basis for the commission during the election cycles and has done DebateWatch in both the 1996 and 2000 elections. The biggest difference, she said, is the improvement in technology.
“In 2000, we were able to promote and manage DebateWatch online,” Balas said. “In years past, citizens did DebateWatch and their facilitator would fill out a form on paper and fax it in.”
Now, DebateWatch posts a survey within 15 minutes of the debate’s conclusion on its Web site (www.debates.org). Balas said the idea is to have people get together, watch the debate and turn the television off before “talking heads” take the airwave.
“We take the grassroots approach to engage (voters), then we compile the information nationally,” Balas said.
The approach was a surprising success for John Campbell of Las Vegas, N.M. Campbell planned for a public function with the debates, and happened to come across the DebateWatch information.
“We decided we were going to have a public debate watch, then I went online and learned the commission had a site to promote them,” Campbell said. “My wife and I just decided to try to organize one on our own after sitting at home getting headaches watching the conventions.”
Campbell said the setup wasn’t too difficult. A local hotel allowed Campbell to use one of its meeting rooms at no charge and charged individuals for small food items.
After the first debate, Campbell felt a different experience than when he and his wife watched the conventions at home.
“With the group, it created more of a theatrical experience,” he said. “The drama of the debate is more vivid, having people react around you and knowing your reactions aren’t unique.”
Campbell said he was surprised at the attendance the events received with just word-of-mouth advertising and a few flyers.
“We were thinking we’d be lucky to get 20-30 people, and we got 72 at the first one,” Campbell said.
An unintended effect was a benefit to his business. Campbell, who owns a coffee shop and used book store, said that more customers come in because they view the store as a place to discuss politics.
There are currently no DebateWatch groups in Portales, but Balas said an organization could be set up even before Wednesday debate by signing up at the Web site, and having a university in Portales creates many potential viewing groups.
“These events happen very easily in fraternity houses, (where) it’s really easy to pull together three or four people,” Balas said.