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Published on Tuesday, October 4, 2000 in the New York Daily News
Where Are Ralph & Pat?
Shut Out By Big-Party Politics
by Jamin B. Raskin and Jonathan Soros
An unsuspecting American public assumes the Commission on Presidential Debates is an official public entity.

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 Republicans.

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.


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