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Candidate debates are regulated by federal and state election laws and regulations. In addition, important Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules apply to debates sponsored by organizations designated as 501(c)(3) by the IRS. League-sponsored debates are governed still further by the League’s own nonpartisan policy. Although legal challenges are infrequent, debates are high-stakes campaign activities, and candidates who believe they have been hurt politically by a debate may challenge debate sponsors under these laws.
NOTE: The following overview should not be construed as legal advice. State and local Leagues should consult their own tax and election law counsel to ensure that their debate plans are in accord with all applicable laws and regulations. Suggested resources for additional information include: Federal Elections Commission (www.fec.gov); Internal Revenue Service (www.irs.gov); Federal Communications Commission (www.fcc.gov); and your state’s chief elections official (e.g. Secretary of State, State Board of Elections or Attorney General).
The League Framework
The League of Women Voters shall not support or oppose any political party or any candidate.
All Leagues bear the responsibility of safeguarding this nonpartisan policy and the organization’s nonpartisan reputation.
League membership organizations are designated 501(c)(4) by the IRS, and League education fund corporations or trusts are designated 501(c)(3). League membership organizations that use funds in their education fund accounts must abide by education fund rules. Whether acting as a 501(c)(3) education fund or as a 501(c)(4) membership organization, each League will want to sponsor and conduct debates in such a way as to avoid creating the impression that it favors one candidate over another.
It is recommended that Leagues utilize a traceable form of mail delivery (e.g. USPS delivered, signed mail receipt or email returned mail receipt) to correspondence with the candidates regarding the “ground rules” for participating in the debate and the actual invitation to participate in the debate.
The Regulatory Framework
Key elements of the regulatory framework include the following:
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulates the conduct of corporate, labor and nonprofit organizations — including both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations — in federal elections. FEC regulations define a debate as an event that
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates radio and television broadcasters and cablecasters. Under its regulations, a broadcaster that permits a candidate for any public office — federal, state or local — to use its facilities must provide all other legally qualified candidates for the same office with equal opportunities for use.
A broadcast debate must comply with the following FCC requirements.
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules provide that 501(c)(3) organizations "may not participate or intervene, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office." This prohibition applies to campaigns for public office at all levels — federal, state and local. A violation of IRS rules could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of the 501(c)(3) organization responsible.
A 501(c)(3) organization may sponsor nonpartisan voter education projects, such as debates, provided certain rules are followed. The guiding principal for such debates is that there be fair and impartial treatment of all candidates, with nothing that promotes or advances one candidate over another.
"Empty Chair" Debates
It sometimes happens that only one candidate in a contested election accepts a debate invitation or that a candidate cancels a debate appearance after agreeing to participate, leaving the debate with only one participant — often called an "empty chair" debate. If only one candidate accepts the invitation, the debate should be canceled. While cancellation is also the most prudent course of action when a candidate fails to appear at the event or backs out shortly before the debate, Leagues may need to consider whether and how to proceed should they find themselves in an empty chair debate situation.
There are no specific guidelines from the FEC or the IRS pertaining to the ability of nonprofit organizations to sponsor an empty chair debate. (FCC regulations would preclude any broadcast coverage of such an event.) Inasmuch as an empty chair debate, by giving one candidate a forum to talk to voters all by him/herself, bestows a real benefit on that candidate, there is a risk to any League that hosting such a debate would run afoul of FEC and/or IRS rules as well as the League’s nonpartisan policy.
The degree of risk and the options available to Leagues vary depending on the office being sought by the candidates and the IRS designation of the sponsoring organization:
 These guidelines amplify information provided in Chapter 2 of the LWVEF publication Face to Face: A Guide to Candidate Debates (pub #830).
Guidelines for State and Local Leagues including “empty chair” debates
Reaffirmed October 2011