Let us in! Wisconsin libertarians file complaint to get in debates


By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — The Libertarian Party of Wisconsin says the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association provides illegal in-kind campaign contributions to candidates who qualify for its television debates.

The association bars candidates from participating in the televised debates unless they have 10 percent voter support in polls and raise $250,000 in campaign contributions. This, the party says in its complaint to the Government Accountability Board, essentially amounts to free advertising for Republicans and Democrats.

DEBATE ME: Robert Burke, the Libertarian candidate for governor, wants in to the upcoming televised debates.

The Libertarian Party wants its candidate for governor, Robert Burke, to be allowed to take part in all televised debates.

“(WBA is) saying certain candidates are electable and certain candidates aren’t,” said Andrew Craig, who filed the complaint. Craig is a Libertarian running for secretary of state. “They’re advocating for the election of Republican and Democrat candidates and the defeat of their opponents.”

GAB spokesman Reid Magney confirmed the agency received Craig’s complaint, but said he couldn’t say anything more about it.

According to state law, the agency will review the complaint to decide whether there’s reasonable suspicion of a violation. If the GAB finds the complaint is frivolous, the agency can charge Craig up to $500 or for the expenses of investigating the complaint.

When asked about the rules, Association President Michelle Vetterkind said, “The WBAF (foundation) believes that it has a role in helping to inform voters of the positions and issues of the candidates through the debates, but does not have an obligation to promote or elevate a candidate in the election.”

Vetterkind declined to answer follow-up questions.

The game could be construed as rigged because major polls like the Marquette Law School poll don’t include Burke or People’s Party candidate Dennis Fehr. Charles Franklin, Marquette’s polling director, didn’t say why their polls only name Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke.

“We code when someone says they are voting for a third-party candidate,” Franklin said in an email. “In May, that was 1.4 percent. There were 3.9 percent undecided and 2.3 percent who said they didn’t know.”

Libertarians face the same obstacles in other states, too. The Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis was excluded from polling and debates in Old Dominion, Virginia Watchdog reported. Sarvis garnered 6.5 percent of votes in that election despite the media blackout.

“It clearly is a pattern,” Harry Wilson, pollster, professor and director for the Roanoke College Institute for Policy and Opinion Research, told Virginia Watchdog. “If that’s one of the criteria that they (debate hosts) use, if pollsters don’t include candidates in these polls, then it’s basically impossible for them to meet that threshold.”

Campaign finance and election law experts say these Libertarian complaints are meritless.

The Libertarian Party and Green Party’s presidential nominees in 2012, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, filed separate lawsuits against the Committee on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit created and controlled by Republicans and Democrats to run presidential debates.

Johnson claimed the CPD violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by colluding against third parties, restricting competition for the presidency and its $400,000 salary.

Stein claimed the CPD violated her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection and free speech. Both lawsuits failed in court, but Johnson is raising money to sue again this year.

“It’s completely bogus,” said Hans von Spakovsky, former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission. “This issue has been litigated to death on the federal level. I think this complaint is just as bogus. There is no requirement for an organization to put every single candidate in the debate.”

Rick Esenberg, an election law instructor at Marquette University and president of Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, called Craig’s complaint frivolous.

“I appreciate their frustration,” Esenberg said, “but providing a forum for candidates who meet an objective criteria of support is not to advocate for their election or defeat.”