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Elisabeth MacNamara Headshot

Presidential Debates: A Chance for Change

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Last night President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney squared off in the first of three presidential debates. While the presidential debates still offer voters valuable insight into the character and demeanor of the candidates, their impact is seriously diminished by their limited number and timing and by current campaign practices that elevate attack ads funded by special interest money over face-to-face contact with voters.

Voters should be the central focus of campaigns. Instead, floods of big money, especially outside secret money, obscure the candidates through expensive television ads making dubious claims or stating outright lies. Candidates spend too much time courting donors and raising money rather than reaching out to personally introduce themselves to voters.

Voters need more time and more opportunities to really get to know the candidates. Voters deserve many more occasions and better formats to see the candidates demonstrate their mastery of important subjects by talking and responding to questions on their own without a poll-tested script from their handlers.

Three presidential and one vice-presidential debates, stacked nearly on top of each other in the final weeks of the campaign, are simply inadequate. By the time the debates roll around, voters' introduction to the candidates has been from a months-long and sustained wave of attack ads, charges, counter charges, outrageous claims and statements of general partisanship. What's more, early voting and absentee voting start in some states before the first presidential debate is even held.

Historically, candidate debates have been essential to providing all voters with the information they need to make up their minds and feel confident in their decisions. Presidential debates were initially designed to provide the candidates with a platform to speak in their own voices, rather than through ads and negative campaigning by outside groups. The goal of debates should remain true to their origins: To provide voters with the information they need and desire on the candidates and their visions for America's future.

To counteract these trends and put the voters back in charge, we need a few changes.

There should be more, not fewer, presidential debates, and they should stretch over a longer period in the general election process. More debates would assure us that we are seeing the real candidates, and not their handlers and canned responses. Starting debates earlier in the campaign season would allow them to become a central way for voters to be informed. Replacing slick television ads with well-run debates would be a welcome trade-off for many. There is nothing better than hearing from the candidates themselves.

Altering the format of presidential debates is another promising avenue for improvement. In an era of sound-bite television, debates should allow for more open-ended discussion between the candidates. Rather than subjecting viewers to an evening of dueling candidate stump speeches, debates should offer more time for the candidates to follow-up with questions for each other. Voters will benefit from such a format, one that allows the candidates to question each other and argue back and forth, with real rules and enough time for follow-up. Reforms should bring us debates that are a true exchange of ideas, not dueling prepared and memorized statements.

Voters want accurate, unfiltered information directly from the candidates and debates are the most personal look that many voters get of the candidates. It would be a step in the right direction to get the candidates to spend more time talking to the people and less time raising money. More debates that feature an honest discussion between the candidates would be a wise investment for us all.

Elisabeth MacNamara is the 18th national President of the League of Women Voters of the United States. The League of Women Voters sponsored the Presidential debates from 1976-1988. The League's www.VOTE411.org is the nation's premiere online election resource.