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Open Debates 2016 Challenges the Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates

by Alex Gauthier, published

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.

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, 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."

Photo Credit: Mint Press News

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