Presidential Debates
For a Process that Provides an Informed Vote
Commission on Presidential Debates Prevents Debates from Informing Gary Johnson Sues the Commission on Presidential Debates FEC Owes Closer Look to Televised Debate Policy



Presidential Debates

For a Process that Provides an Informed Vote

The first presidential debate takes place October 3. As has been the case for the past twenty years, none of the third party candidates will be permitted to participate. As well, the topics being addressed have already been released to the two participating candidates, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. So there will be no surprises or sharp questioning to contend with.

Representatives of the Democrats and Republicans run the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the debates. The candidates essentially dictate the terms, and a contract is agreed to in secret, governing what can and cannot occur. Based on previous contracts made public, these terms usually include the screening of all questions to be asked ahead of time, whether by a moderator or on the town-hall style debates an audience member; that microphones for any audience member are turned off as soon as a question is asked, etc. The entire “debate” is an orchestrated appearance by the two candidates, designed not to inform voters about the platforms of the candidates.

The effort to disinform voters by excluding third party candidates occurs even before the debates are planned. Previously, thenon partisan League of Women Voters organized the debates. In 1984, they were removed after refusing to submit to demands from presidential candidates that they approve moderators and reporters for questioning, not the League. Eighty journalists were rejected by the candidates. In 1986 the existing Commission run by the Republicans and Democrats and their candidates took over. The Commission now sets criteria for participation in the debates. These include having the candidate polling at 15 percent. But the polls utilized do not even include the names of the third party candidates!

Much like the rest of the electoral set up, there is not even the pretense by the Commission of being fair and providing equal participation for all candidates. Instead the set-up guarantees that only candidates of the rich are considered viable and that elections are exclusively an arena for the rich to battle out who is to be their champion. The working class, its vision for society, its own worker politicians are blocked from having a role. Third parties offering various solutions to social problems also are blocked from equal participation. Serious debates where government takes responsibility for providing the public with information about the problems of the day and views of all the various candidates also has no pl ace. How then can a fundamental feature of a modern democracy, which is an informed vote, take place?

New mechanisms and institutions for participation in elections are needed. Voice of Revolution is calling for Public Funding of the Process, not the candidates, with equal participation for all candidates, including the peoples' own worker politicians and informing voters about the platforms of all candidates main requirements. Government must take responsibility for a process that provides equal participation for all, equal opportunity to present platforms and equal right to be elected. It must take responsibility to inform the public and provide mechanisms to put the interests of the public, not the monopolies, center-stage.


Commission on Presidential Debates Prevents Debates from Informing

In 1984, the campaigns of Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale tried to eliminate difficult questions from the presidential debates. The League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debates that year, had prepared a list of journalists to pose questions. The campaigns vetoed every reporter on the list. The league submitted another list, and again, the campaigns vetoed every one. By the end of the process, the campaigns had rejected 80 reporters.

The league was outraged. Despite threats from Reagan and Mondale not to participate in its debates, the league held a news conference and lambasted the campaigns for "totally abusing" the process. As a result, the panelist selection process for the second debate was entirely different. Not a single journalist was rejected; the candidates were too afraid of public criticism.

This year's debate sponsor, the Commission on Presidential Debates, would never challenge the candidates as the league once did. Despite its official-sounding name, the commission is a private corporation that was jointly created by, and for, the Republican and Democratic parties. In 1986, the parties ratified an agreement "to take over the presidential debates" from the nonpartisan league, and the commission has sponsored every presidential and vice presidential debate since.

The co-chairs of the commission, Frank Fahrenkopf and Mike McCurry, are major party loyalists and corporate lobbyists. Fahrenkopf is the former chairman of the Republican Party and the nation's leading gambling lobbyist. McCurry is the former press secretary to President Bill Clinton and a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry. Not surprisingly, the commission is principally financed by major corporations such as Anheuser-Busch.

Every four years, the commission demonstrates its fealty to the Democratic and Republican candidates. Behind closed doors, negotiators for the major party nominees draft secret contracts that dictate how the debates will be structured.

Undoubtedly, the commission's monopoly over the presidential debates has harmed our democracy. Without a sponsor willing to criticize the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the debates are often structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-averse candidates, not voters.

Because the candidates fear making a costly gaffe, fewer debates are held than necessary to educate voters. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times. Earlier this year, the Republican primaries featured an unprecedented 27 debates. The commission, meanwhile, has only scheduled three presidential debates this year. At a time when the country is facing a complex fiscal crisis, stubbornly high unemployment and multiple foreign policy challenges, debates should not be rationed.

Even more troublesome, the few presidential debates held are often governed by rules that impede actual debate. Remarkably, contracts negotiated under the commission's tenure have prohibited the candidates from talking to each other. The contracts also require all questions posed by audience members during the town-hall debate to be prescreened. And the moderators are vetted by the candidates and thus unlikely to pose surprising questions.

Third-party candidates also are routinely excluded from the commission's debates, even when a majority of voters support their inclusion. Ross Perot was excluded from the 1996 debates although his campaign had received $29 million in taxpayers' funds and 76 percent of voters desired his inclusion. No third-party candidate has been allowed to participate in a presidential debate for the past 20 years.

The presidential debates have never been more important. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are running neck-and-neck in the polls, and an endless barrage of attack ads are making it difficult for voters to figure out who the candidates really are. The debates provide the best opportunity to directly evaluate the candidates. Yet, without an independent organization like the league sponsoring them, and so long as the commission exercises a monopoly, the debates will fail to fulfill their potential. (September 9, 2012)

Attorney George Farah is director of the nonprofit Open Debates ( and the author of "No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Candidates Secretly Control the Presidential Debates."


Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson
Sues the Commission on Presidential Debates

On September 21, the Libertarian presidential ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former California Superior Court judge Jim Gray filed an anti-trust lawsuit in U.S. District court to ask the court to force the Commission on Presidential Debates to include all presidential candidates who have enough ballot access to have a mathematical chance of winning the presidential election to have a spot on the debate stage.

The lawsuit accuses the Democratic Party, Republican Party, and Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) of violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which prohibits certain business activities that reduce competition, and requires the federal government to investigate and pursue trusts, companies, and organizations suspected of being in violation. The relevant part of the law is Section 2, which reads:

“Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $100,000,000 if a corporation, or, if any other person, $1,000,000, or by imprisonment not exceeding 10 years, or by both said punishments, in the discretion of the court.”

If the lawsuit is successful, this year's CPD-sponsored debates will either expand to include the Libertarian candidates as well as the Green Party ticket of Massachusetts physician Jill Stein and Pennsylvania anti-poverty advocate Cheri Honkala, or be canceled.

(Note: No third party candidates have been included in the presidential debates for the past 20 years. This is the first time anti-trust law has been used as a means to challenge the CPD concerning the presidential debates — Voice of Revolution ed.)


FEC Owes Closer Look to
Televised Debate Policy

A Socialist Party politician can fight the selection criteria used to exclude him from televised debates in Ohio, a federal judge ruled. The 18-page decision says that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) failed to properly consider the challenge of Dan La Botz the first time around, so it must do so again on remand.

La Botz filed a complaint with the FEC after the Ohio News Organization (ONO) scheduled a series of debates for October 2010 without consulting him or allowing him to participate.

In September 2010, the FEC found that participant selection criteria for the Ohio debates fell within its guidelines.

The FEC's ensuing report cited objective factors that the news organization had considered, including the "percentage of votes by a candidate received in a previous election; the level of campaign activity by the candidate; his or her fundraising ability and/or standing in the polls; and eligibility for ballot access."

La Botz then sued the FEC in Washington, and U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras found Wednesday that the FEC proceedings were insufficient.

Though the FEC argued that La Botz lacked standing since the debates were long gone, and the election had passed, Contreras said his case could "curtail ONO's alleged bias and decrease the probability that he will be unfairly excluded from any future debates," the court summarized.

Contreras agreed and then proceeded to the merits, which he also found to favor La Botz.

"The FEC argues that it dismissed La Botz's administrative complaint only after determining that the ONO employed pre-established, objective criteria to select the candidates who would be invited to the debate," the decision states.

But La Botz said that ONO never documented these criteria, which he says was designed for a two-party system.

Contreras noted that the FEC's brief report that dispatched La Botz's complaint made just one mention of the matter with the "sentence: 'it appears that [ONO's] debate selection criteria were pre-existing and objective ... and consistent with a number of different criteria the commission has previously found to have been acceptably 'objective.'

"The court is mindful that the agency is not required to provide an elaborate explanation of its reasoning ... [b]ut here, the FEC's one-sentence analysis threatens to 'cross the line from the tolerably terse to the intolerably mute,'" Contreras wrote.

He added that "the FEC appears to have based its decision on an affidavit submitted by Benjamin Marrison, an editor of the Columbus Dispatch (and a member of the ONO consortium), which states:

'[ONO] pre-established a number of criteria for selecting the candidates to participate in the debates ... [ONO's] pre-selected criteria first ensured the eligibility of the candidates and then pared down the field of candidates to the two frontrunners based upon indicators of electoral support.'"

But this affidavit does not show that Marrison "has first-hand knowledge of the assertions or is otherwise competent to testify to such," as required by the basic threshold for witness testimony, Contreras found.

He also found it unclear whether the FEC considered an email that could show the organization disregarded commission regulations that forbid "major party nomination to be the sole criterion employed to select debate participants."

"On September 8, 2010, a member of the ONO consortium wrote: 'the Ohio News Organization generally follows the structure used by the commission on Presidential Debates, which allows for only the major-party candidates to debate,'" Contreras wrote (emphasis in original).

Finding that the FEC lacked substantial evidence to support its decision, the judge remanded the case to that body for further proceedings. (September 10, 2012)



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