The presidential debates of 1980 may be headed for disaster. Instead of being a positive force in enlightening the electorate, they may become tools of Jimmy Carter and Roland Reagan, fitting nicely into their carefully conceived campaign strategies. That would be a bad turn of events.

Apparently we have all forgotten the lessons of the 1960 and 1976 presidential debates: the debates should serve the interests of the voters, not of the candidates. The debates are too important to be left to the candidates; they must be mounted and managed by surrogates of the people.

Carter and Reagan now are shopping around for a congenial forum in which to stage "one-on-one" debates. Carter people say this will help focus public attention on the right issues, which involved the differences between the two men and two parties. Carter forces say their man wants to debate early in September. Reagan syas he will see how the debates plan fits his busy schedule.

The candidates are treating the debates as their property. They are deciding who will issue the invitations, where the debates will be held and who will be on the stage.

Is this in the public interest? What is the purpose of these debates? Is it to present the candidates in yet another contrived and controlled setting? Or is it to allow us voters to observe the candidates -- as many as we think appropriate -- in circumstances not of their making, to hear them respond to questioners not of their choosing, to see them sweat a little under pressure?

The candidates already control or influence practically every aspect of the campaign. The public gives $29 million each to Carter and Reagan, underwriting the vast media blitz that will assault us this fall. Guided by skilled adversers, the candidates will play to the press for maximum exposure. They will time announcements and appearances to capture attention, secure in the knowledge that network coverage of one man will be matched by equal time for the others.

Presidential debates are important and worthwhile precisely because they offer an alternative source of information: a relatively unhurried look at the candidates talking about issues and about their views. Debates present the candidates in a setting they cannot control. Debates permit a side-by-side comparison of the candidates. Debates force us to listen to candidates from other parties. Debates in no way infringe on the freedom of candidates to run their campaigns as they wish.

Both Carter and Reagan are raising questions about the debate plan proposed by the League of Women Voters Education Fund. Carter contends that independent John Anderson should be excluded from the initial appearances and that the first debate should be held in early September.

The League did not creat John Anderson and does not espouse his candidacy. Whether the president likes it or no, the American people have established Anderson as a factor this year. If Anderson is a significant candidate, he should be in the debates.

Candidate complaints about the debates should be suspect. In 1976, when both candidates saw debates as a necessary evil, senior representatives of the candidates struggled to influence every detail -- the design of the set, the color of the backdrop, the height of the lecterns. The public does not like this conduct. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the 1976 debates showed that a strong majority of the public favored the debates and wanted them repeated in 1980. But a majority also believed that the candidates had too much say over the structure and other details of the 1976 sessions.

What, at this juncture, should be done?

First, the public should support the idea of an orderly process for debates, with sponsorship by one institution. We do not need a debate one week sponsored by the National Press Club and one the next held by Ladies Home Journal. Changing auspices and changing rules could add up to a messy and confusing series. The debates should be committed to the custody of one established and credible organization.

Second, the public should support the League as sponsor. Unlike other sponsors currently proposed, the League is in the business of voter education. sIt sponsored the 1976 debates, which both candidates praised afterward. The League has held candidates' nights, debates and get-out-the-vote drives at the municipal, county and state levels for 60 years. It is the leading sponsor of debates in congressional campaigns and in 1978 held 23 gubernatorial debates. The League is scrupulously nonpartisan.

Third, the public should support the notion of including any significant third-party or independent candidate. Automatic exclusion, under the Carter doctrine, could mean the end of outsider challenges in presidential politics.

The presidential debates of 1980 may become a shambles, a confusing mix of candidate-controlled events or a patchwork of debates that will strain voter credibility.

That would be a shame. We have at hand a valuable new political device -- truly the people summoning the candidates to come forward and be heard. It is best that we keep the debates clean and simple. Let the League run the debates, inviting whom it will, and let the candidates be big and bold enough to appear before the voters for the job interview.