SW EZ Debate Illustration Davis Fairbanks Weiland 01

Lauren Jensen, a programmer from Centerville, created EZDebate.com, an online platform for virtual debates among political candidates, dissatisfied with the traditional moderator-led format. Three of the hopefuls in the race for Utah's 1st District seat in the U.S. House are taking part in an EZ Debate forum. They are, clockwise from the upper left-hand corner, Republican Chadwick Fairbanks III, Democrat Kurt Weiland and Adam Davis of the Green Party. The images of the three were taken from screen captures of their debate videos.

CENTERVILLE — Lauren Jensen had generally limited his political activity to voting.

After the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016, though, the Centerville man’s outlook on political involvement began to evolve. The heat and vitriol became too much, and the debates that year seemed to morph into something else.

The moderators “always seemed to be biased one way or another,” he said, adding that they interfered with the exchange of ideas and views. 

“Sometimes I think a moderator becomes a third debater.”

He concluded that the most unbiased moderator “is no moderator at all,” and convinced of the import of debate in the political process, he decided to get off the political sidelines and wade in. While maintaining a perch on the political fence, the programmer by day who works after hours at night, created an online platform — EZdebate.com — that gives those vying for office a means to debate without a moderator stumbling in the middle.

This cycle, challengers in Utah’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd district U.S. House races are taking part in EZ Debate debates, and Jensen thinks such exchanges — untainted by the influence of a moderator — will be key in moving beyond partisan bickering. 

“My take is that politics in our country is becoming very divisive and people are becoming entrenched in a position, not listening to the other side,” he said.

Get past partisanship, and the ideas candidates put forward, instead, will take center stage. That will help catapult candidates based on their proposals — not their ability to parry gotcha questions in debates — leading to better public policy, maintains Jensen, a programmer for a West Valley firm called BMA Banking Systems that creates software for banks.

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Lauren Jensen

Lauren Jensen of Centerville created EZDebate.com to give political candidates a means to debate without a moderator, which he thinks can be distractive.

Still, it may take time to get the word out.

Three challengers in the race for the 1st District U.S. House seat here, which takes in Weber, Cache and Box Elder counties and part of Davis County, among others, are taking part in an EZ Debate debate. They are Adam Davis of the Green Party, Democrat Kurt Weiland and Republican Chadwick Fairbanks III.

Incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop, a GOPer from Brigham City who’s seeking his ninth term, isn’t participating, nor are three other hopefuls — Democrat Lee Castillo, Eric Eliason of the United Utah Party and Republican Kevin Probasco.

“Once I started participating, I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’” Fairbanks said. It’s more convenient for voters, he said, because they can watch at their leisure.

Fairbanks will be challenging Bishop for the GOP nomination at the Utah Republican Party convention on April 21. He currently has online video of himself speaking on some key issues — immigration, trade, the 2nd Amendment — that he can show to GOP delegates who will make the call at the convention.

Davis said the format of letting people watch when they have time is convenient since the video of the candidates remains online indefinitely. Beyond that, it gives third-party candidates — who can have a hard time getting attention — a means to get their message out.

“I think it’s really necessary. It’s needed,” Davis said.

Weiland has mixed feelings. He laments the lack of direct interaction between candidates that would occur in a standard debate, which can highlight a hopeful’s ability, or lack thereof, to respond on the fly.

If there is moderator bias — Jensen’s worry — maybe it’s a matter of picking the right moderator or tweaking the traditional format to factor that, Weiland thinks.

Jensen understands objections like Weiland’s. His counterpoints are that his format allows for more substantive exchanges and that it keeps candidates from interrupting each other. 

“I personally believe the person’s ideas are more important than the charisma,” he said.

Participating candidates provide video of themselves responding to queries posed by Jensen, with pre-determined time limits, and Jensen splices it all together. A sidebar on the right side of the screen in each debate gives viewers a means to skip around between candidates and questions.

INCUMBENTS UNWILLING TO TAKE PART

EZ Debate launched in 2017, hosting online debates between the candidates in the mayoral races in Lehi and Provo.

Viewership had been slow, but as Election Day, Nov. 7, neared, he noticed a change.

“Then all of a sudden it started going crazy. Both debates went viral in that area... It ended up being more successful than I thought it would be,” he said.

This cycle, aside from the races for the three U.S. House seats in Utah, candidates for the U.S. Senate race here, two U.S. House seats in Colorado and a U.S. House post in Nevada have agreed to take part. However, it’s mainly been challengers who have expressed interest, not incumbents.

Like Bishop, the 1st District incumbent, neither 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart nor 3rd District Rep. John Curtis, both on the ballot, opted to take part in the EZ Debate debate. Two challengers in the 2nd District contest and three in the 3rd District race are taking part.

“A lot of the incumbents haven’t been that workable. They haven’t wanted to participate,” Jensen said.

He’s financed his venture and the prospects of earning money are cloudy. Even so, Jensen believes there’s a greater good, and he’s motivated by something other than money — fomenting productive political discourse.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever be hugely profitable. But that’s not the reason I’m doing it,” he said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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