Every election year we wind up with a similar argument about the scheduling of debates and their relative importance to the general election.

In 2018 there was a major public spat between Gov. Larry Hogan’s re-election campaign and the campaign of Democratic challenger Ben Jealous. Both campaigns argued that the other side only wanted to have one debate. The body politic was not moved by the debate over debates. Nor were the people particularly moved by the debates themselves, as Gov. Hogan retained his commanding lead throughout the election.

This year is a little different.

Heading toward this year’s general election, neither Wes Moore nor Dan Cox has firmly established himself as a candidate in the hearts and minds of Maryland’s electorate — in part because neither is a statewide incumbent. These candidates, however, are fortunate; they are backed by high-dollar donors, national organizations and large caches of grassroots volunteers backing their campaigns.

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But they are not the only candidates appearing on your ballot this year.

There will in fact be five candidates. Joining the major party candidates Cox and Moore will be the nominees of three other parties: Libertarian David Lashar, Green Party nominee Nancy Wallace and Working Class Party candidate David Harding. All of those candidates have a similarly low level of public awareness with average voters, who typically don’t pay attention to the election until at least Labor Day. These candidates have roughly the same level of experience in public life and public policy as Cox and Moore (and as I mentioned in a recent column, Lashar has more experience than either).

Those other candidates do not have high-dollar donors or large national organizations behind them. Volunteers can do only so much, no matter how motivated.

What Lashar, Wallace, and Harding need is a platform to share their ideas with the public.

But the public may not know that the sponsoring organizations set the ground rules for debates and the criteria for participation. Maryland does not have an overarching, nonpartisan organization such as the Commission on Presidential Debates does for presidential elections. That leaves media outlets or civic groups to their own devices when it comes to establishing criteria. And the criteria could be very different from one group to another.

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The Maryland State Bar Association has proposed a gubernatorial debate this year with a very simple qualification: If you’re on the ballot, you’re in the debate.

The Maryland League of Women Voters criteria are a little more complicated, but no less clear. Candidates must be nominated by a recognized political party or be “one of the top 3 candidates with at least 5% public support in a recognized, nonpartisan statewide public opinion poll.” Based on that criteria, all five candidates should qualify to be on the stage at their debate. Hopefully, that will be the case.

The great unknown is the criteria for any televised debates sponsored by local media. In recent years, televised debates between candidates for governor have focused only on the Democratic and Republican nominees. That is mainly due to the fact that voters are usually willing to settle for one of the top two candidates.

However, this year could look more like 1966. That year, Democrats voted for extremist segregationist George Mahoney as their nominee for governor. This prompted Democratic Baltimore City Comptroller Hyman Pressman to launch an independent bid as an alternative to Mahoney. He received nearly 10 percent of the vote.

While Cox may not be a segregationist, he does represent an extreme deviation from the winning formula for Maryland Republicans. And a number of voters may look for an off ramp if they see one.

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Cox, of all people, should be in support of including other candidates on the stage. During the primary election, Cox and his supporters made a habit of criticizing Secretary Kelly Schulz for not appearing at certain debates alongside Cox.

But that was then. Now it is of no benefit for Cox to insist that Lashar appear on stage with him. Seeing as how many independents and mainstream Republicans are looking for an alternative to Cox, Lashar’s appearance on the stage will provide an opportunity for those voters

If Cox wants to be ideologically consistent on the idea of debate participation he pushed during primary season, he should also be insistent that Lashar, Wallace, and Harding share the stage.

Moore should also commit to participating in debates. Though Moore may be the favorite, he should not allow Democratic arrogance about this election to persuade him to continue to decline to debate, as he did with a recent opportunity at Morgan State.

I challenge every media outlet and civic organization across Maryland thinking about hosting a candidate debate or forum between now and Nov. 8, particularly those who plan to broadcast that debate, to include every candidate on the ballot. The voters deserve to know that they have choices beyond the Republican and the Democrat. If you’re on the ballot, you belong on the stage.

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Brian Griffiths is a conservative activist and publisher of The Duckpin. He is a regular contributor to The Baltimore Banner and can be reached at brian.griffiths.media@gmail.com or on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok.

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