The FEC and Federal Candidates’ Debates: How Far the Mandate to Regulate?


For four years, until regulations were formulated to guide the conduct of election debates, the League of Women Voters Education Fund and the Federal Election Commission struggled over whether the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) requires the FEC to regulate federal candidate debates. This struggle also encompassed the question of how the League was to proceed with debates if it was determined that regulation was mandated.

Although the League and the FEC agreed that the purpose of the FECA was to curb election abuse, the FEC viewed the FECA as a broad mandate to regulate the election process while the League insisted that theFEC’s mandate was more narrow. The event that triggered this controversy was the FEC decision immediately prior to the League-sponsored 1976 Ford-Carter debates to bar the League from accepting corporate or union donations to defray the costs of political debates. The FECA bars corporations and unions from making contributions to, or expenditures on behalf of, federal political candidates or political committees. While the FEC admitted that corporate and union donations to the League were not contributions or expenditures under the Act’s definitions of those terms, the FEC said that League disbursements for debates were nevertheless “in connection with” an election and therefore could not come from corporate or union sources. The League responded that to fall within the prohibitions of the Act, a corporate or union donation must not only be “in connection with” an election, but must also be made for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election.

Concluding that the debates had to be regulated, the FEC was uncertain as to exactly what was required to ensure compliance with the Act. This uncertainty was demonstrated by the FEC’s changing restrictions over the four-year period on who might contribute to and sponsor debates, and on how federal candidates should be selected to participate in debates.

At the heart of its controversy with the FEC was the League’s concern that it would not be able to continue its sixty-year tradition of providing nonpartisan information to voters and of stimulating voter interest in elections. The League believed that the result of FEC action would be to inhibit opportunities for the public to compare candidates and their positions on the issues. The League was equally concerned that complex regulations would effectively chill the free and open discussion which is at the core of the American political process.

After four years of uncertainty, the FEC finally developed a set of regulations that may satisfy most of the League’s concerns. But these issues were barely settled in time for the national League to undertake the massive fundraising needed to sponsor the 1980 presidential debates, or for local and state Leagues to sponsor similar events for congressional, statewide, and local candidates.

This paper first discusses the conflicting views of the League and the FEC on whether the FECA requires the regulation of candidate debates. Secondly, it analyzes the FEC’s attempt to regulate the sponsorship and funding structure of federal candidate debates. Finally, the article concludes with an assessment of the difficulties still to be faced by would-be debate sponsors.

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