An unsuspecting American public assumes the Commission on Presidential Debates is an official
Nope. It is a private corporation set up by the two major political parties. Although
it comically insists that it is nonpartisan, it was created on a proudly bipartisan basis
in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican national committees.
It has been led continuously by Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, former chairmen of the
RNC and DNC, respectively, who vowed to exclude third-party candidates from the start.
The 10 commissioners are unelected, unaccountable and self-appointing Democrats and
There would be nothing wrong with Democrats and Republicans holding a closed debate
if they paid for it.
The problem is that the commission's "debates" (they used to call them, more
honestly, "nationally televised joint appearances" between the major-party
nominees) are paid for by large private corporations like Anheuser-Busch, proud hometown
sponsor of the upcoming Oct. 17 debate in St. Louis.
This year, the commission is including only candidates who are at 15% in five national
public opinion polls, thus excluding Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party
candidate Pat Buchanan. This 15% rule, plucked out of thin air to destroy serious
third-party candidacies, triples the statutory 5% of the popular vote that a presidential
candidate needs to collect to qualify for public funding.
Had Minnesota used this arbitrary 15% standard in 1998, Jesse Ventura would have been
excluded from the 10 debates he participated in he was only at 9% in the polls
and undoubtedly would have lost the election. No debate, no opportunity to be heard
by the public.
The scandal here is that voters are being cheated out of a free and fair election.
For example, when you exclude Nader from the debates, you exclude the only candidate on
the stage who opposes the death penalty, favors national health insurance and public
financing of campaigns and calls for a repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act.
The two parties are allowed to maintain a conspiracy of silence on important issues
they agree upon.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) has placed constitutional principle above strategic
partisanship by introducing a resolution to change the commission's criteria. Under his
proposal, candidates would be allowed to debate if they stood at 5% in the polls or if 50%
of eligible voters said they should be included.
In a democracy, what should matter most is whom we, the people, would like to see
debate before we go to the polls, not what the managers of the two-party system want us to
see. Large majorities of the public have supported the right of serious third-party
candidates to debate.
Is it too late for the people to take the 2000 presidential election back?
Raskin is a professor of law at American University
and Soros is a 2000 graduate of Harvard Law School. They are members of the
Appleseed Citizens' Task Force on Fair Debates.