NEW YORK MILLS -- It's a question worth asking in this election year, even if the answer seems as primed for debate as the candidates running for office.
"Is democracy fair?"
The question will be decided this weekend, not by politicians or pundits, but by "average" Americans gathered in the New York Mills High School gymnasium for the Great American Think Off.
Now in its eighth year, the Think Off was started by the town's Regional Cultural Center "to spark debate on important life questions among everyday people, bringing philosophical debate out of the ivory towers ... and into coffee shops, school rooms and other gathering places," the event's promotional material says.
Sisseton, S.D., resident
Organizers expect 400-450 people who live in and around this small (population 972) west-central Minnesota town to participate in this year's Think Off debate, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Saturday.
First, the audience will ponder the words of the four essay finalists who will read their winning entries and field questions from the audience, then cast their ballots to decide the winner.
A nationwide C-SPAN television audience also will participate -- with questions of their own for the debaters -- as the public affairs network returns to cover the Think Off for a third straight year.
The live broadcast, hosted by C-SPAN's on-air personality Lou Ketchum, will begin at 6:55 p.m. Viewers will be able to call in their questions to Think Off managers via a toll-free number, according to organizers.
Portland, Ore., resident
The finalists -- selected from about 250 entries submitted by essay writers around the country -- will receive a $500 prize and an all-expense paid trip to New York Mills to debate the merits of their positions, two from each side of the question.
Peter Hilts, 33, Lakeville, and John Staub, 25, Sisseton, S.D., will open the debate by reading and defending their essays supporting the idea that democracy is fair.
Hilts, an environmental studies teacher, won the 1994 Think Off with his winning essay and debate over whether or not "life has meaning." An adoptive father of three Ethiopian children, Hilt compares the practices of this African country with the United States in making his point in this year's essay contest, organizers say.
Staub, a recent Peace Corps volunteer, uses the "analogy of the traffic control at an intersection in his claim that the principle of pure democracy is fair but must be protected by an active and informed citizenry," organizers say.
Taking the "no" position are Kristin Talbott, 33, Portland, Ore., and Andy Dehnert, 22, Chicago.
A marketing representative, Talbott argues that democracy can be misused, citing examples of how majority rule has denied freedoms to others, organizers say.
Dehnert, a Web site producer who has recently started a graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont, claims the democratic system of government "has become too mired in economic interests to be fair," a Think-Off news release said.
Hilts and Staub will debate the merits of their essay position first, followed by Talbott and Dehnert. Each will have three minutes to respond to questions from Think-Off judges, as well as from the audience and C-SPAN viewers.
A winner from each of the two sides will face off in the final round, before the audience casts the deciding vote, expected about 9:50 p.m.
Tickets ($10) are still available, organizers said this week, and can be purchased at the gate or by calling the center at 385-3339.
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