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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 Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / September 7, 2010

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.

Justin Sullivan/AP/Pool


Los Angeles

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?

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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.

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.