Californians debate debates: Who gets to participate?

First it was hunger striking candidates. Now a Libertarian running for secretary of state in California launches a petition to open debates to all who are qualified.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Barbara Boxer, left, D-Calif., shakes hands with Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina during a debate on the campus of Saint Mary's College, on Sept. 1 in Moraga, Calif.
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Is democracy best served by political debates in which all official candidates participate? Or is it more helpful for fewer candidates to have more time to detail their differences?

In California, the third candidate in a month is seeking to heap that long-contested issue onto voters’ political plate.

First, Democrat Richard Lutz and Libertarian Michael Benoit took the unusual step of staging a hunger strike for nearly two weeks in August in an attempt to force a debate with Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, the Republican incumbent in the 52d congressional district, in time to influence absentee voters.

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Now, Christina Tobin, founder and chairman of The Free and Equal Elections Foundation and the Libertarian party candidate for secretary of state, has launched a petition to open all debates to include all qualified candidates.

“Non-inclusive debates are not a new phenomenon,” Tobin, who is also a board member for Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER), said in a statement. “However, the true purpose of candidate debates should be to provide a forum for all qualified candidates to discuss the issues and provide voters with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions at the polls.”

Tobin’s petition, which is not legally binding, has little chance of changing California practices. But it raises the age-old political issue of who should be able to participate in political debates.

“On the one hand, some will claim that there cannot be a productive and coherent exchange of ideas if there are too many candidates on the stage at any point in time,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director at the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-partisan think-tank based in Los Angeles. “On the other hand, some will contend that there cannot be a true and full debate, including differing viewpoints, if only a few candidates are included in that debate. The issue is, what gives the public more useful information, more or less candidates on the stage?”

Debate lineups

Tobin’s petition push follows the first debate in California’s Senate race, in which Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina faced off last week. Several gubernatorial debates have already been scheduled between Democratic candidate Jerry Brown and Republican rival Meg Whitman, Sept. 28 and Oct. 2, 5, and 12.

“The only threshold for participation should be successfully qualifying for the ballot under the various state election laws,” says Tobin’s petition, which is posted at a website encouraging voters to electronically “sign” and email. “Since the process has been clearly and shamelessly abused, no other threshold can be considered acceptable,” it says.

Richard Winger, the petition’s campaign manager, while allowing that while the initiative is not legally binding, says if the number of signers is high his organization plans to trumpet the news.

But party officials, political scientists and other observers say such candidates are excluded for a host of reasons, ranging from cost to candidate motivation.

“Don’t expect to see many, if any debates, where the third-party candidates are included. The only ones pushing for this are the third parties,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. He says third-party candidates usually represent less than 5 percent of the electorate so they are a distraction for the viewers who want to see “the two leading candidates mix it up.”

He says Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who stumbled badly in a debate last week, only agreed to the forum because it was a condition for receiving $1.7 million in public financing money.

“It is already hard to get the front-runner to debate.” Mr. Stern says. “If third party candidates are included, front-runners are even less likely to debate since usually all the candidates will gang up on the candidate who is ahead in the polls.”

Practicality vs. fairness

And Gary Aminoff, Los Angeles Regional Chair for the state Republican Party, says the biggest reason is practicality, not fairness.

“I agree that from the position of the candidate who isn't included it probably isn't fair. I know they would like to be onstage with the big boys,” says Mr. Aminoff. “We have more than 230 years of history that demonstrate that third party candidates never win major political office. That is the principal reason they aren't included.”

He says the probability of a third party candidate winning an election for governor or senator is “so unlikely as to be almost impossible.”

“Air time is precious and expensive,” Aminoff says. “No sponsor is going to want to pay for air time for a candidate who has no chance whatsoever of winning an election. Also, most of the public … do not want to sit in front of the television and listen to the opinions of a candidate that they know has no chance of winning. They want to hear from the candidates from the two main parties so they can make up their mind as to which one to vote for.”

But Mr. Winger, the petition’s campaign manager, says that every midterm election year, about half the states hold debates with routine invitations for minor party candidates and about half don’t. “It’s kind of odd and funny that this has come down to really just a habit of tradition,” he says.

He rejects Aminoff’s remarks point by point.

“It doesn’t add much cost to the debate to bring in a few more chairs,” he says. And he adds that public opinion polls in 2000, 2004 and 2008 showed that strong majorities of voters expressed preference for having Ralph Nader at the presidential debates in those years.

“If you buy the logic that there should be no debates including those with no chance of winning, you would nullify the Reagan vs. Mondale debates of 1984,” he says. “People want to hear ideas for solving problems whether they can win or not.”

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