Debates between candidates competing for public office are an important part of democracy. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as candidates to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate held a series of seven debates across the state. The first televised general election debate for U.S. President was held in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
From 1976 until 1987 the League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates. In 1987 the League of Women withdrew as the sponsor of presidential debates. When the presidential candidates (Bush & Dukakis) negotiated behind closed doors an agreement that sought to control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues, the League of Women refused to participate stating that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter”.
With the League of Women Voters out of the way the Democratic and Republican parties took control of the debates by forming the Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission established as a non-profit organization has been headed since its inception by former chairs of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Third party and independent candidates for the most part have been excluded from participating in presidential debates.
In just about every election there seems to be a debate about holding debates. In the recent election for New York State Governor, not one debate was held for the primary election and only one televised debate was held in the general election. The lack of debates was a disservice to the public. Voters and the news media should have the opportunity to see candidates put forth their ideas and answer unscripted questions in a debate that includes candidates beyond just those running as Democrats and Republicans.
In 2015 there will be elections across the country, to ensure that debates are held, a nonpartisan Debate Commission not controlled by political parties should be formed in every county or city. A Commission consisting of representatives from radio, television, newspapers and institutions of higher education would take care of the logistics involved in setting a date, location and debate rules. At a minimum two debates should be held before the primary election and two debates before the general election. Debate participation should not be limited to just Democrats and Republicans but should also include minor party candidates who will appear on the ballot.
Debates are an important tool for providing information to voters. We need more of them!