Fair Debates: Not Just for President

By Andy Craig 
Director, OAI Midwest Region


The fight for Fair Debates continues. Through the vehicle of Our America Initiative, the parties and candidates excluded from the 2012 general election debates are seeking to have the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates disbanded, and all legitimate candidates included in the 2016 debates. Defendants include the C.P.D., President Obama, Mitt Romney, and the Republican and Democratic National Committees, who have all now officially been served and given their notice to respond to their alleged violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

This effort isn’t just about the presidential debates, though. It’s much bigger than that. All across the nation, sponsors of debates for congress, governor, state legislatures, and even local offices point to the Commission’s policy as justifying their exclusion of third-party and independent candidates. Doing their best to fly below the radar of public awareness, corporate media consortiums collude to sponsor these two-party-only televised “debates,” siding with their ability to appease incumbent politicians over their stated goal of informing their viewers.

If Gary Johnson et al prevail on their claims, the effect will be immediate in elections for lower office. Debates for House and Senate are directly governed by the same federal laws as presidential debates, requiring them to be nonpartisan, educational, and use objective criteria for inclusion. For state-level elections it would also create a strongly persuasive precedent on the interpretation of their similar laws, and overturn some of the bad federal precedents that state authorities have relied on in the past.

Opponents of fair and inclusive debates, will often raise the specter of “dozens” of candidates qualifying to be on-stage. However, that is not a realistic possibility. The standard being proposed- that all candidates who secure their place on the ballot should be allowed to participate- would mean that for most offices and in most elections, the number would not exceed four or five, and in most cases only two or three. Fewer, in other words, than routinely participate in debates for the major-party nominations.

Debate organizers say that only candidates who show a credible modicum of support should be included, and that’s not necessarily unreasonable. Nobody is demanding unserious or joke candidates be allowed to disrupt a very important and serious event. However, state election laws already do precisely that. Every candidate must meet some hurdle to even get their name on the ballot, either by gathering petition signatures from the voters, paying a filing fee out of the campaign’s fundraising efforts, or securing the nomination of a party that has earned a sufficient number of votes in past elections. In many states, these barriers are much higher for third-party and independent candidates than for those running as a Republican or Democrat.

At the presidential level, there is the additional hurdle of attempting this in 51 different jurisdictions, to get on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of winning the Electoral College. That’s a standard that has only ever been met, at most, by seven candidates. In 2012, it would have been just four: Obama (D), Romney (R), Johnson (L), and Stein (G). These laws are already written to satisfy the concern of unserious and joke candidates cluttering up the ballot and interfering with the electoral process. At the state level, to pick a representative example from my home state Wisconsin, only four candidates have been on the ballot in each of the most recent gubernatorial and senatorial elections.

Debate organizers are not allowed to say, outright, that their policy is Democrats and Republicans only. Instead, they resort to writing “objective” criteria selectively designed to be impossible to meet for third-party candidates. Like the Commission, many will insist that a candidate must clear 15% or 10% in recognized polls, while refusing to accept polls that include more than their two desired candidates. They do this even in lower races where serious polling is scant or non-existent.

In the recent Kentucky Gov. election, independent Drew Curtis was excluded on the basis of polling, only because the debate organizers set a cutoff date on polls months ahead of the debate, prior to when Curtis had secured his ballot access and begun to be included in the polls. Another notorious and corrupt tactic, is to require an arbitrary monetary threshold in donations to the campaign; money which happens to be mostly spent on purchasing advertising time from those same broadcasters. In Wisconsin, the Broadcasters Association refuses to allow the participation of any candidate for governor or senator, who doesn’t have at least a quarter-million dollars in the bank (“generously” lowered from a previous requirement of having a half-million dollars.)

Even for candidates who are undeniably making a strong showing in the polls, generating enthusiasm and support for a well-funded and viable third-party campaign, if debate organizers want to find a supposedly “objective” reason to exclude them, they can. Among the more outrageous tactics, is to require candidates have a physical campaign HQ outside their home, and then re-write the criteria at the last minute so that only the major-party campaign offices qualify (e.g. by saying it has to be rented and can’t be owned, or must have a minimum amount of floor space).

Another is to set a polling threshold, such as 10%, and ignore the polls that show that being met in favor of a single cherry-picked poll that shows 9%. In Florida in 2014, major media organizations simply raised the threshold from 7% to 10% to finally 15% in order to exclude a Libertarian candidate who was polling at 13%. Even the pollsters themselves think this is dishonest and misinterpreting their work. That’s why many of them have protested this year against debate inclusion being decided on a fraction of a percentage point within a 4-point margin of error. Gallup, one of the biggest names in polling, even stopped conducting traditional horserace polls rather than see them misused that way.

This is the fundamental “fraud on the American voter,” as the League of Women Voters memorably put it, surrounding our political debates. The law requires that debates be nonpartisan, educational, and use objective criteria for inclusion. Our effort is about calling out the ongoing violation of these laws for what it is: a dishonest pretense, monopolistic collusion, and an illegal conspiracy to disenfranchise millions of Americans whose views are not represented by Team Red and Team Blue.

Many people see third-party candidates for President, and reasonably ask why they haven't first seen more members of their party being elected to lower office. Both of our co-plaintiffs, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, do run hundreds of candidates for non-presidential offices every election year (I know, because I’m one of them.) Both parties, comfortably the third- and fourth-largest in the nation, have elected state legislators, and thousands of officeholders in local elections. It is debate exclusion that sets the glass ceiling to protect the two-party-only system: not just at the presidential level, but at the intermediate lower offices, like congress and governor, which have the potential to produce viable presidential candidates.

That’s why I’m supporting Fair Debates. I think it is important that Americans get to hear from all legitimate candidates for president;  but more importantly I agree with the 60% of Americans who say that “Republicans and Democrats do such a poor job representing the American people, that a third major party is needed,” an all-time high according to Gallup. American government is broken, from top to bottom. Nothing will begin to change until Americans have more choices than lesser-of-two-evils, pick-your-poison politics, where all candidates must do to win is be marginally less offensive than the other. Republicans and Democrats should have to face real competition to earn your vote, and no debate organizer should be allowed to pick and choose which candidates voters are allowed to hear from.

I urge you to join us in this historic attempt to reshape our nation’s politics for the better, and contribute today at www.FairDebates.com.

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