President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will face off in the first of three nationally televised debates on October 3. However, given the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), not all candidates on the ballot with a mathematical chance to win (one of the criteria) will be allowed to address the nation. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein will not be there.
After the 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the next presidential debate wasn’t until 1976. This was when the League of Women Voters accepted responsibility for the sponsorship, format, and participation criteria. In 1980, under pressure from many sides, the League established a 15% level of support requirement for independent and third-party candidate participation. As a result, John Anderson, running as an independent debated Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter refused to participate in that debate. Carter did debate Reagan in the second debate that year without Anderson present.
In 1987, the CPD was established as a bi-partisan non-profit to oversee the debates. However, in 1988, the two major parties excluded the League of Women Voters in the planning, secretly signing a Memorandum of Understanding on who could participate and the format. The League ended its role.
After John Anderson, the next third-party or independent candidate to appear in the debates was Ross Perot in 1992. At the time of the debates, Perot was only polling 7%, but both the Clinton and Bush campaigns invited Perot to participate against CPD rules. Since both campaigns were willing to dump the CPD as the sponsor, the Commission acquiesced and allowed Perot to participate. This is an important fact because it shows the control maintained by the two parties over the process. Why won’t the Obama and Romney campaigns follow this example? What are they afraid of?
The League of Women Voters established the 15% polling rule, however, the wording of the rule used by the CPD is where there is a problem. The CPD, unlike the League, selects the five national polls that are used.
This means that third-party and independent candidates have to be listed as choices in those polls. Given the control the Republican and Democratic parties exert over the polls and the partisan make-up of the CPD leadership, that is not about to happen.
2012 – Enter Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Johnson has qualified for the ballot in all 50 states, beating back court challenges to remove his name from the ballot; officially on the ballot in 47 states with three challenges remaining. Jill Stein has qualified in at least 24 states and is projected to be on the ballot in 36 to 39 states. For both candidates, this represents a mathematical possibility to win the presidency. This mathematical possibility is one of the CPD criteria.
Gary Johnson has now raised the stakes. He has filed suit in Federal Court under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act charging the two major political parties, through the Commission on Presidential Debates, conspires against third-party candidates. While it’s a shame that our freedom of choice must be determined by the courts, the issues facing our country require voters have the widest realistic choice in who they want leading the most powerful country in the world for the next four years. This lawsuit is not only timely, it is right and long overdue.
It takes 270 electoral votes to be elected president of the United States. Voters must be presented all the information necessary to choose among those candidates that have the potential to capture this number of electoral votes. The media must provide the same coverage to these candidates regardless of political party or bias. This not only means equal coverage of campaign events and policy statements, but inclusion in all debates. The outcome of this election and the future of our presidential electoral process depend on Gary Johnson prevailing.