Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Undemocratic Debates

The American presidential debates should be open to all nominees on the ballot, not limited to the major parties’ candidates.

Until 1988, the League of Women Voters (LWV), a nonpartisan political organization that seeks to improve American government and impact public policies through citizen education and advocacy, invited presidential candidates from all parties to participate in presidential debates.

Because of procedural interference by the Democratic and Republican parties, including refusing to debate third-party nominees and screening debate questions, the LWV withdrew from debate sponsorship. The league then issued a press release stating that it refused to become “an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Now, a body known as the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has ultimate control over who can and cannot participate in the major debates that have become the headliners to the final showdown on Nov. 4.

The CPD, which is composed of former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, has established the rule that a candidate must reach at least 15 percent in popular opinion polls to debate. This is an exclusionary tactic to keep non-major party candidates from debating, yet the percentage represents a large number of American citizens.

In a 1984 recommendation made by the Commission on National Debates, the precursor to the CPD, the commission urged the Republican and Democratic parties to assume sponsorship responsibility for the debates. Doing so, according to the recommendation, would “strengthen both the process and themselves.”

Furthermore, the commission concluded, “The importance of television forums argues for erring on the side of favoring the party-nominated processes rather than the rights of other candidates.”

As of 2008, this attitude has not changed.

Third-party candidates, the electoral underdogs, have always been pushed to the sidelines, written off as automatic losers. But their exclusion from the debates points to a deeply immoral and undemocratic aspect of our electoral process.

Debates are a political institution in which nominees present their beliefs and platforms and challenge their opponents. The very makeup of a debate can affect what a candidate will say and what issues will be brought to the table.

Several third-party candidates in this year’s election are on the ballots of many states. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party nominee, is on 34 state presidential ballots. Ralph Nader, running for the Peace and Freedom Party, has fought for open debates for years, yet he has met a brick wall in the CPD.

A Zogby International poll found that 55 percent of voters want to see Bob Barr participate in debates with Barack Obama and John McCain. Forty-five percent of voters supported the inclusion of Ralph Nader in the presidential debates.

Barr and Nader are only two of the many third-party candidates on state presidential ballots who should be allowed to debate on the national stage.

“Change” has been the buzzword of this year’s election. But what kind of change can we expect from a system that has for the last two decades placed the interests of the two major parties ahead of the best interests of the American people?

The exclusion of third-party candidates from national, televised debates not only harms the integrity of our democracy, it limits the public’s exposure to varying points of view, alternative solutions and criticism of the major parties’ policies.

Thomas Jefferson advocated the spread of knowledge to the average American citizen, believing that an uninformed polity led to tyrannical rule.

“The information of the people at large can alone make them safe,” Jefferson wrote, “as they are the sole depositary of our political and religious freedom.”


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