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 parties.
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 candidates.
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 front-runner.
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 situation.
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