From firstname.lastname@example.org Fri Aug 18 11:00:53 2000
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 20:41:26 -0500 (CDT)
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: USA: Presidential Debates A Rigged Game
Presidential Debates Should Serve -- Not Subvert -- Democracy
By Jeff Milchen, JINN Magazine
Monday 14 August 2000
The televised presidential debates are the single most influential
forum for most Americans who are trying to decide whether they
should vote and who to vote for. They offer a rare opportunity to
hear candidates' ideas unedited and in context.
To our national disgrace, these debates are now controlled by a
private corporation that is purely a tool of the Democratic and
Republican parties and operates without any public oversight. The
"Commission on Presidential Debates" has set criteria that exclude
any third party or independent candidates. In other words we will
be allowed to hear only the nominees of the owners of the
Commission -- unless citizens act to regain authority over this
vital democratic process.
Democrats and Republicans consolidated control over the debates in
1987, replacing the League of Women Voters with the CPD. The CPD
calls itself non-partisan, but bi-partisan is the most generous
label possible as it is exclusively controlled by the two dominant
While the fall debates should be open to the four presidential
candidates with a mathematical chance to win -- those appearing on
enough state election ballots -- that is not enough. We must
return the presidential debates to a body representing the public
interest, a body that will serve democracy, not duopoly.
The CPD is effectively not accountable to the public. Major
corporations and private foundations have invested $25,000 to
$250,000 each to run the CPD events in previous elections. This
year the price has gone up: Anheuser-Busch Inc. alone is paying
over $500,000 for a contract that includes exclusive sponsorship
of one debate.
Corporate sponsors are unlikely to protest the exclusion of
candidates questioning, say, the legitimacy of corporations
funding political campaigns -- citizens should.
New CPD requirements mandate that, in order to share the stage
with the candidates of the two dominant parties, a candidate must
be able to claim the expected votes of 15 percent of the public.
This is three times the 5 percent threshold political parties must
achieve to receive major party status and matching public funds.
Moreover, the polls used to determine expected support are not
required to list candidates other than those from the two parties
and are structured in a way that often marginalizes third party
Only two candidates from outside the two dominant parties have
participated in the presidential debates since 1960: Ross Perot in
1992 and John Anderson in 1980.
Though he ran as an independent, Anderson was an incumbent
Republican congressman with the enormous advantages of 20 years in
office, yet his poll results showed only 13-18 percent immediately
prior to the debates, and he took 7 percent of the popular vote.
In October 1992, independent candidate Perot polled at less than
10 percent prior to the debates -- and so would not have been
eligible under the new rules -- but captured 19 percent of the
popular vote after voters had the opportunity to hear his views,
thanks to more reasonable standards for debate participation.
Perot's presence in the race helped boost voter turnout by a
stunning 12 million from the previous election. By raising the
barriers in l996, the CPD defined Perot -- the most visible critic
of NAFTA and other corporate trade treaties -- as "unelectable"
and excluded him from the debates. Of course, hiding a candidate
makes "non-viability" a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Less than half as many Americans watched the 1996 Clinton/Dole
affairs as had tuned in to 1992's three-way debates.
There is abundant evidence that voters are dissatisfied with their
current lack of choice. The CPD's approach seems certain to
further diminish public interest.
One recent illustration of the unfair effects of the CPD criteria
is the case of Jesse Ventura, who averaged just 10 percent support
in polls for Governor of Minnesota in September 1998. Then he
participated in five debates and went on to win with 37 percent of
the vote -- though no major poll ever identified him as the
Limiting the number of debate participants is necessary, but
simply including the candidates of parties with a mathematical
chance to win would mean a maximum of five candidates.
We deserve to hear some from those outside the status quo. A
private corporation surely has no place controlling this vital
part of our democratic process.
The CPD's duopoly-by-design must be replaced with a public body
that will nourish democracy. We should demand a broader debate,
and ask how deeply our democracy is damaged by the present
Jeff Milchen is the founder of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a non-profit
group dedicated to reviving American democracy and revoking
illegitimate corporate power over civic society.
2000 Jeff Milchen
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