The League of Women Voters and the debate issue

Fighting to be included in debates is a familiar exercise for Greens in the United States. Most political organizations fall into one of two camps: either they support open debates with all ballot-qualified candidates, or they support closed debates, which are typically limited to Democrats and Republicans. However, the League of Women Voters, in various times and places, has played the role of both ally and adversary to supporters of open debates.

The League of Women Voters ran presidential debates until 1988, when the Democratic and Republican parties, unhappy with the LWV’s inclusion of independent candidates like John Anderson, formed the Commission on Presidential Debates to seize control of the debates. The LWV issued a statement to announce its withdrawal of sponsorship for the debates:

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing sponsorship of the presidential debates … because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

However, this year the League of Women Voters in Illinois has invited only the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor to an October 20th televised debate, despite the fact that Green Party candidate Rich Whitney received over 10% of the vote for governor 4 years ago. Whitney has called a press conference for Monday October 11th to demand that the LWV include him. Whitney’s campaign has also created the facebook group “Let Rich Whitney into the League of Women Voters Debate” and this video message from Rich Whitney to Illinois voters, which the campaign will release as a TV ad if it can raise enough money:

Whitney will take part in a debate with independent Scott Lee Cohen and Libertarian Lex Green on WJBC on Monday 11 October from 3-4:30PM. Democrat Quinn and Republican Brady declined to participate.

In Connecticut, Green Party Attorney General candidate Steve Fournier has filed a complaint with the IRS challenging the LWV’s tax-exempt status. Fournier says that while the League is supposed to be nonpartisan, its criteria for debate participation discriminate against independent and third-party candidates.

In Maryland, a post at the Baltimore Sun’s Maryland Politics blog entitled “Third-party gov candidates demand to be in debate” drew this comment:

The gubernatorial debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters is the “real” debate to attend. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7:30 pm, in the Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus, 7995 Georgia Avenue. For more information, see http://lwvmd.org/n/node/3261 or call 301-984-9585. Unlike WJZ-TV and the Baltimore Jewish Council, the LWV serves only the voters, and all of them. Third Party candidates have to work hard and overcome many electoral hurdles to get on the ballot; they deserve to be heard.

Maryland Green Party gubernatorial candidate Maria Allwine also commented on the post.

Is the League of Women Voters in your state a friend or foe of open debates? Can Greens call on the League’s better angels to ensure that our voices are included in the debates? What do you think?

Dave Schwab


  1. In Minnesota, the League of Women Voters has two debate criteria for the constitutional offices: (1) Win the nomination of his/her party in the primary election, or (2) Receive support of at least five percent of those polled in an independent, credible, state-wide professional poll.

    Unfortunately, there is no polling for three of the four constitutional offices (auditor, attorney general and secretary of state). This means that the only criterion that can be applied is whether or not you won a primary. In Minnesota, however, you have to be a major party in order to participate in the primary process.

    So as a result, the LWVMN only has a single applicable criterion: You must belong to a major party.

    The LWVMN was contacted early on about this problem, specifically in regards to the State Auditor race (with Green Party candidate Annie Young). They repeatedly ignored our requests, and the one time we were able to get a sit-down meeting with them they told us that they wouldn’t be changing the criteria, and we wouldn’t be able to get into the debate without achieving 5% in a poll. They also said they weren’t willing to field a poll of their own, and wouldn’t even issue a press release calling for media organizations to field a poll.

    We also contacted KSTP, the television station that will be hosting the debate, to ask them to either help us identify a poll that could be used to objectively determine inclusion, or to field a poll of their own. Their response was simple, and clearly called out the bias: “In the absence of any polling in a particular race, I believe the criteria is that only candidates from officially recognized “major parties” under state law will be included in the debates. That would restrict the debate to the GOP, DFL and Independence Party.”

    If you’re curious about any of the details, feel free to contact me.

    Jim Ivey
    Politics Chair, Green Party of Minnesota
    jimivey at mngreens.org

  2. I agree that Whitney should be included in the debate, from what I understand I do believe that the LWV did invited LeAnn Jones to a debate, because he was polling more than 5% and Alexi G pulled out of the debate for that reason. That being said given the state of Illinois, Governor Quinn, ect, I honestly think that Whitney and his campaign have to do some pretty serious self examination about why they are not polling better than 4%.

  3. Chicago Voter: PBS invited LeAlan for the Southern Illinois Debate(Since the Greens are an Established Party by State Statue) and Alexi pulled out. However, the debate for Governor is still on and Whitney was invited. Kudos to Quinn for not chickening out like Alexi.

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