Open Debates 2016 Challenges the Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates

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The First Amendment protects one’s right to free speech, the value of which was enshrined by John Stuart Mill in his 19th century classic, On Liberty:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

A dedication to the principles of a full, frequent, and fearless discussion is uniting a coalition of minor parties, nonpartisan organizations, and engaged voters who want an alternative to the partisan presidential debates. They are banding together to produce Open Debates 2016, an unprecedented undertaking which aims to open the discussion across 10 nationally televised debates, including candidates that aren’t exclusively on the Republican or Democratic tickets.

The project follows in the spirit of the third party debate in 2012, which featured Libertarian Gary Johnson, Jill Stein from the Green Party, the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, and Virgil Goode from the Constitution Party. It was moderated by late night legend Larry King, and reached over 20 million viewers when it aired on October 23, 2012.

Zak Carter is spearheading the coalition and has ambitious plans for the project. Already over 20 members strong, the team is still growing. It includes groups and individuals from across the political spectrum like: Robin Koerner of Blue Republican, talk show hosts David Pakman and KrisAnne Hall, Terry Bain of Occupy America, IVP, Rock the Vote, Media Alliance, and others.

Carter was instrumental in orchestrating the third party debate in 2012. He says it’s time for voters to get a real discussion on the issues:

“The commission needs a shakeup of their debates. Their debates are shams, there are secret backroom deals, the candidates get questions far in advance, and we’re not getting a real debate, we’re getting a scripted performance.”

He hopes the debates will rival the reach of the debates held by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which falls anywhere between 70-100 million people. Disdain for both political parties has grown following the government shutdown this year, so the viewership just might be there.

In order to foster a substantive discussion, participants won’t receive questions ahead of time and a series of about 10 debates will give candidates a chance to address the issues in depth, diminishing the need to rely on partisan talking points. The top candidates are chosen by voters who will then move on to the subsequent round. So rather than leaving the results up to partisan pundits in the mainstream media, voters would choose who performed the best.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) started administering presidential debates in 1987 when it took the reins from the League of Women Voters (LWV). The follwoing year, the LWV withdrew their sponsorship, stating:

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

What has now become a forum for prepared statements and partisan talking points bears little resemblance to the democratic function the presidential debates are supposed to serve. Coalition member Robin Koerner agrees:

“The system in my view is corrupted by the fact that it is a legalized duopoly. The two parties have a vested interest in locking it down for two parties. And they have done that in law and with the debate commission, they effectively do that with the thresholds that they move. Now you’ve got to get 15 percent before you have a candidate on the stage.”

The threshold Koerner mentions was upheld in the courts. In a lawsuit brought after Ralph Nader’s exclusion from the debates in 2000, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled in 2005 that there was insufficient evidence that the CPD was controlled by the Democratic and Republican National Committies.

Nevertheless, the CPD is operated by former head of the Republican National Committee, Frank Fahrenkopf, and President Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Michael McCurry.

"It’s a form of mass gerrymandering… that they would keep these voices out."Robin Koerner
While the debates have been under bipartisan control, the only non-major party ticket allowed to participate was Ross Perot in 1992. He entered the debates with 7 percent in the polls.

Carter thinks he can avoid relying on an arbitrary polling percentage by working with the coalition members to build consensus on which candidates should be asked to participate. However, voters will be able to weigh in as well.

“I want 10 candidates to start with,” said Carter. “And I’d kind of like to… American Idol-ize it as a way to keep people tuned into each debate.”

Occupy America radio host Terry Bain signed on in light of Jill Stein’s arrest outside of a presidential debate at Hofstra University in 2012:

“[Jill Stein] was arrested, [she was] on the ballot in almost all the states so she was a legit candidate… That’s unacceptable. We cannot have candidates arrested. That’s just not the way things are supposed to work.”

Bain feels ‘real’ issues have been purposefully left out of the CPD-sponsored debates and therefore aren’t addressed by either major party or traditional media.

The last missing link to make Open Debates 2016 a success is some star power. While Carter acknowledges how instrumental Larry King was in making 2012 a success, he also knows there is a high demand out there for a better approach to presidential debates that continues to grow.

“People are, by in large, tired of this dog and pony show of Democrats and Republicans and looking for something different. We’ve got a pretty solid plan on how to bring something different to the American people.”

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Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates Harms Process

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Photo Credit: Mint Press News

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  1. Robert Polityka I would love to see third party candidates "enter a debate " with the the President ial nominees from the Democratic and Republican parties..let them join the debate without invite···Party crashers..
  2. Sue Rich Let the audience ask the questions they want debated. No scripts. No set answers.
  3. Jillian Griffel Agree! But that is why they are politicians. The same goes for elections they are a scam to this society!
  4. Faye Lemke Hamilton I really don't care who stages the debates. I'd just like to, for once, see moderators that don't take sides in the debate. Obviously, everyone is on one side or the other but we had moderators joining in the debate last year a la Candy Crawley.
  5. Gavin Gryte If everybody's tax dollars are paying for primaries, they cannot restrict the general public from participating. If the significance of publicly funded primaries results in an opportunity for public debate, independents should have equal access.
  6. Robert Routh No advance notice of topics or approval by campaigns. Penalize time allowed by the amount of time the candidates went over time. Require them to stick to debating rules: ie stand at the mike or remain sitting only. No pacing about. No unusual facial expressions.
  7. Francine JE Open Primaries too...
  8. Richard Macdonald We do need open debates on real issues. The open debates the primary republicans put on were both funny, sad, and eye opening, but the presidential "debates" were vapid. We average citizens are utterly shut out of the process of being able to judge real policy. We probably always have been, but my nose ring is beginning to hurt.
  9. Earl Radabaugh Forget them all! Let's vote for honest, God fearing men and women.
  10. Bubby Bass The open debates may completely overshadow the standard mock-debates between the standard two. If the debates are held the way Open Debates 2016 are planning, they will provide far more substance, honesty and reality to be heard.
154 comments
Robert Polityka
Robert Polityka

I would love to see third party candidates "enter a debate " with the the President ial nominees from the Democratic and Republican parties..let them join the debate without invite···Party crashers..

Sue Rich
Sue Rich

Let the audience ask the questions they want debated. No scripts. No set answers.

Jillian Griffel
Jillian Griffel

Agree! But that is why they are politicians. The same goes for elections they are a scam to this society!

Faye Lemke Hamilton
Faye Lemke Hamilton

I really don't care who stages the debates. I'd just like to, for once, see moderators that don't take sides in the debate. Obviously, everyone is on one side or the other but we had moderators joining in the debate last year a la Candy Crawley.

Gavin Gryte
Gavin Gryte

If everybody's tax dollars are paying for primaries, they cannot restrict the general public from participating. If the significance of publicly funded primaries results in an opportunity for public debate, independents should have equal access.

Robert Routh
Robert Routh

No advance notice of topics or approval by campaigns. Penalize time allowed by the amount of time the candidates went over time. Require them to stick to debating rules: ie stand at the mike or remain sitting only. No pacing about. No unusual facial expressions.

Richard Macdonald
Richard Macdonald

We do need open debates on real issues. The open debates the primary republicans put on were both funny, sad, and eye opening, but the presidential "debates" were vapid. We average citizens are utterly shut out of the process of being able to judge real policy. We probably always have been, but my nose ring is beginning to hurt.

Earl Radabaugh
Earl Radabaugh

Forget them all! Let's vote for honest, God fearing men and women.

Bubby Bass
Bubby Bass

The open debates may completely overshadow the standard mock-debates between the standard two. If the debates are held the way Open Debates 2016 are planning, they will provide far more substance, honesty and reality to be heard.

Hester Regan
Hester Regan

surprise questions would be most welcome. If we would have had those when our present "leader" was debating, I wonder if he'd have made the cut.

Shirley Johnson
Shirley Johnson

Open debates & open primaries..What are tghey afraid of?

Edward Theilmann
Edward Theilmann

The fact that they have to do this shows how corrupt this corporately owned political system is. I doubt they will succeed but hope they will. It wouldn't surprise me to see no debates because of this as a response to this in 2016.

Ronn Greek
Ronn Greek

ALL candidates, same debate with give and take! :)

Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan

You mean you really want to know their ability to think on their feet. The last few debates I've seen were no more than a scripted show like Saturday Night Live!

Craig Berlin
Craig Berlin

Gary Johnson would have destroyed both Obama and Romney if he had been there.

Ronald B Cadby
Ronald B Cadby

C cubed (Cadby's Crazy Creativity): How about this idea? The most numerous and popular TV shows seem to be the many variants of talent shows. Why not have a political debate format? For example, imagine something like the Voice with a cross section of the most popular pundits wearing blinders and earphones that disguise the speakers' voices. Each prospective candidate then presents his/her case for being on the nationwide election ballots. The 'judges' then compete to be 'mentors' of the proponents they like the most and the candidates choose which 'coach' they want to work with. Then, the public, via phone polls, Twitter, texting, et al 'vote' for their favorites and at the finale the winners get their name on all the ballots regardless of their party affiliation. Maybe, just maybe, the public would become engaged in the process and we would have genuine choices, not paid for with back room deals. Like and share if you think this would provide more open elections.

Jacqueline Lynn
Jacqueline Lynn

Pre-scripted "questions" are not questions at all but prompts leading to pre-scripted sound bites!

David Prowse
David Prowse

Yes. That voters have a choice is pure illusion.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

Stop calling them "debates" for one thing. A debate is a yes/no argument on a specific question. Call them forums or panel discussions or even cage matches for all I care...but if we're not going to have the basic honesty to stop calling them debates, we are going to go nowhere, anyway.

Kevin C. Smith
Kevin C. Smith

I would agree with most all of that, except the "...believe in God or who...". It is irrelevant and none of our business.

David Holstein
David Holstein

I don't doubt this but getting candidates to participate in an actual debate would,be tough and funny as,hell!

Jorge de Ulloa
Jorge de Ulloa

We see it as senseless but unfortunately negative ads and this jabbing works with a large portion of the voting population.

Tony Fig
Tony Fig

Half the time its senseless jabbing at one another

Jorge de Ulloa
Jorge de Ulloa

exactly, we put too much emphasis on presidential debates as if they were dictators; when in reality they don't have that much power, congress and states have more power.

Tony Fig
Tony Fig

equal balance between presidential and state debates....need to have both arguments and not neglect one side

Jorge de Ulloa
Jorge de Ulloa

They should also televise and make the local and state debates more important. Have more people pay attention because that's where real change can take place. We put too much on presidential debates when the most important ones are those who run for congress, state and local positions.

Jorge de Ulloa
Jorge de Ulloa

And when they talk about issues, they should be open and honest about what they would do. Not these same safe talking points. The moderators should stop them and press them when they give those robotic and safe answers. Just some thoughts. The questions should be real and instead of a debate it should be a discussion that way we get a better feel for their views and what they want to get done.

Tony Fig
Tony Fig

Hopefully they actually talk about issues and not about each others personal agenda

Lloyd Ritchey
Lloyd Ritchey

Politicians couldn't take on most High School debate coaches, let alone actually use logic and rhetoric to explore a subject in the pursuit of truth. And the dumbed-down populace of sheep they've cultivated couldn't follow it if they did.

Steve Edwards
Steve Edwards

Debates are just there to see who sweats the most. They mean absolutely nothing. 10 candidates...Lets say 5 questions for each candidate. A 3 minute answer with 9 one minute rebuttals for each question. That's a minimum of 39 minutes per question. So looks to me like we could almost have a three question debate assuming the debates lasted 90 minutes each. 10 questions would take about 5 hours. I, personally, can't take 10 five hour debates. Who the hell would pay for that much TV time???

John Palmer
John Palmer

I totally agree. These things arer not debates by any standards.

Barbara Buckley Short
Barbara Buckley Short

I always wonder how they pull up statistics! Especially if thy don't know the questions.

Carlos Romero
Carlos Romero

Not only that but the moderators are pushovers who routinely allow the candidates to run over them and not follow any of the debate rules. Also, the media darlings/well connected to the rich candidates ALWAYS get more air time at these "debates".

John Prewitt
John Prewitt

This picture is one a the "real" debate done by Free and Equal. It was awesome!!!!

Mandy Graham
Mandy Graham

I voted for Gary Johnson after the GOP shut Ron Paul out...I left the Democratic party... I'm a libertarian now...I'll vote for Gary Johnson again if he decides to run...I'm going to do more personally to get third party candidates elected where I live..I'm tired of dems and repubs... we need to include others in the conversation about how to get this nation back to the people and follow the constitution

Richard Griffin
Richard Griffin

Whole heartedly. Ironically, the major party candidates would fail at real debates with a larger field. I guess that's why it's done this way.

Rob Tatro
Rob Tatro

And you are just realizing this? The only REAL DEBATE will happen when they go BACK to the Stump, which is even before my time. Nielson Rating System is your answer.