Debates a snooze? Open them up

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By Sherry Robinson

Last campaign season at this time, my neighborhood had erupted in yard signs, which advocated for an even split of Democratic and Republican candidates. Today, a few lonesome signs hint that voters aren’t as fired up about candidates, and they’re downright sick of this dreary, endless campaign.
The debates perked things up a bit. Partisans could root for their guy, as they would in a boxing match, but the debates themselves are just one more reminder that our democratic process has been hijacked.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson, campaigning for president as a Libertarian, has run a spirited race, as we expected him to, and he’s developed a following, despite being shut out of the debates by the two major parties and the networks. So the issues and our choices boil down to two well-worn views.
Johnson has lately become a hero of the long crusade to open the debates after filing a complaint with the FCC and a lawsuit. He found the walls around the debates more difficult to scale than Mount Everest.
You may already know that since 1988, the debates have been controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a creature of the two major parties. The commission wrested control of the debates from the League of Women Voters, and sets its own rules. The League predicted darkly that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
Since 2000 the commission has set the bar at a showing of 15 percent support in the polls to be allowed to debate, and the networks feebly go along with this. Johnson, who’s been polling at 6 to 8 percent, argues that the commission’s criteria are “inconsistent and arbitrary” and have the effect of preselecting candidates.
And it is arbitrary. In 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole refused to debate Ross Perot, even though 76 percent of voters wanted to hear Perot. Similarly, in 2000 Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader were excluded, despite popular demand to hear them. Johnson argues that one third of voters don’t identify with either party.
The Federal Election Campaign Act allows federal matching funds for a showing of five percent of the vote. Another reasonable criterion could be a candidate’s appearance on a certain number of state ballots.
The 15 percent barrier is also a Catch-22. How can candidates build a following if nobody hears them? If a tree falls in the woods…
“That is just wrong,” Johnson said. “We owe it to our supporters and to the process to take this basic unfairness and clear bias to those agencies whose job it is to ensure that the power of the airwaves is not being misused in an arbitrary manner.”
The nonprofit Open Debates (opendebates.org) argues those points and adds that even if a long-shot candidate “can’t possibly win,” third-party candidates and movements have in the past given us such measures as the abolition of slavery, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and child labor laws. That’s because a major party may adopt an issue that gains momentum.
What if the powers that be had allowed Johnson into the debates, along with other credible third-party candidates? Well, these charades would be less of a snooze.
Viewers, offered some flavors other than vanilla and strawberry, might discover that in their hearts they’re really a Libertarian, a Green, a (fill in the blank)? We would then look more like a representative democracy and more like other nations, with multiple parties. And the subject matter would expand beyond what the dominant parties want to discuss.
This month, after Johnson’s supporters and Open Debates pelted debate sponsors with letters and email, two – Philips Electronics and the YWCA – pulled out, saying the commission was a captive of the two parties.
It’s not what he set out to do, but Johnson has moved the needle on the dial.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico
News Service