The League of Women Voters, founded 90 years ago as an extension of the women’s suffrage movement, has worked harder and longer than any other group in the United States to ensure that this country’s elections are fair, that citizens can engage, and that the promise of American democracy will be fully realized.
Historically, candidates of all parties have respected and worked with the league.
But as big money has taken over the electoral process, the league has been pushed aside by the power players, who would rather manipulate elections than allow voters to make honest and informed choices.
The disregard by the political class and its corporate sponsors for the LWV’s good work really began back in the 1980s, when the former chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees conspired to take management of presidential debates away from the league. They established the Commission on Presidential Debates -- with help from the television networks -- as a vehicle to limit access to the most important forums for presidential nominees. It worked. With the league out of the picture, third-party and independent candidates were largely excluded from the national forums, while the formats and questions have been dictated more by partisan players than a respect for the public’s right to know.
At the state level, however, the league has continued to be a broadly respected and vital player, especially in Wisconsin -- until now.
The 2010 election season saw several ugly and discouraging assaults on the league’s work nationally by political insiders who -- by every evidence -- sought deliberately to undermine the most consistently responsible and independent advocate for voting rights, high voter turnout and engaged debate.
In some cases, the assaults have been blunt and openly aggressive. After backers of a Republican congressional candidate in Illinois organized an interruption of a league-sponsored debate -- by demanding that the crowd recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then shouting down the moderator -- the moderator received death threats. According to the Chicago Tribune, the FBI was called in to investigate.
La Crosse and Milwaukee-area debates were also interrupted, as were debates in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states.
But those are the extremes. Far more unsettling is the deliberate undermining of the league’s work.
In Wisconsin, for instance, most of the leading Republican candidates for statewide office and many Republican contenders for federal and state legislative seats failed to submit answers to basic questions for inclusion in the Dane County League of Women Voters’ “Candidates’ Answers,” a voter guide that is broadly distributed before every election.
Among the Republican contenders who did not bother to respond were gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, lieutenant governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, secretary of state candidate David King, state treasurer candidate Kurt Schuller, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (the Republican leader in the chamber), and 2nd District congressional candidate Chad Lee.
Numerous Republican legislators, even some in tight races such as state Rep. Keith Ripp, and legislative candidates also failed to reply.
To be sure, a handful of Democrats and third-party or independent candidates missed the deadline. But all the Democratic contenders for statewide office submitted answers.
Could it be that the top-of-the-ticket Republicans were all so inept that they failed to get their act together to participate in one of the most long-standing and well-regarded exercises of the electoral process?
Walker, Kleefisch, Van Hollen and Fitzgerald are able, media-savvy contenders. Newcomers such as Lee proved themselves to be more than capable of communicating about their candidacies. All had staffers who somehow figured out how to fill out the questionnaires from interest groups and to schedule editorial board sessions -- not to mention to get the checks delivered for the television and radio commercials that saturated our airwaves as Election Day approached.
Why avoid the league’s questions -- and miss an opportunity to communicate in a nonpartisan setting?
The primary motivation looks to be an extension of what we saw some years back at the presidential level. Increasingly, political players seek to avoid nonpartisan forums and debates in order to fully control the discussion of candidates, issues and parties.
With tens of millions of dollars flowing into the political process from corporations and wealthy individuals who want to buy results favorable to their interests, it is now possible to gain that control via television ads, mass mailings and appearances on “echo chamber” talk radio and television programs. And thanks to favorable rulings by the current Supreme Court, the political players can send their messages anonymously and with no limits on spending.
Hence, participation in nonpartisan forums, such as League of Women Voters debates and voter guides, becomes not only less necessary but dangerous -- as candidates who are trying hard to manage the message don’t want to run the risk of answering serious questions or saying things for which they might be held to account.
This is power politics at its worst. When nonpartisan forums are disrespected and disregarded by political players who would prefer to use money and intimidation to win the day, civil society and democracy suffer.
Next spring will see important races for Wisconsin Supreme Court, Dane County executive, Madison mayor, and local government and school board offices throughout the region. The league will play a vital role in organizing debates and informing voters about those races. All of us -- candidates, campaigners, citizens -- have an interest in ensuring that the league’s work is respected and encouraged.
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