Open Up Presidential Debates to Third-Party Candidates

Before we start, readers need to take a quick three-question quiz. If you do not know the answers, it is okay. Few people do, especially the answers to questions 2 and 3. I had to look them up myself.

  1. How many candidates participated in the three 2008 presidential debates?
  2. How many candidates were on the ballot in the 2008 presidential election?
  3. Who decides which candidates participate in the debates?

Barack Obama (Democrat) and John McCain (Republican) were the only two presidential candidates invited to participate in the 2008 presidential debates. This is because since the 1988 election the presidential debates are organized by nominally independent bodies -- the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Citizens' Debate Commission -- that in reality are collectively controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats and Republicans set the bar for participation in the debates at a minimum 15 percent showing in public opinion polls, which in every election but 1992 has closed third party candidates out of the debates.

Public opinion polls have no legal standing. However, because the Democrats and Republicans with the acquiescence of the media enforce this rule, third party candidates are denied the ability to present alternative ideas to the American people and the public recognition they would need to garner a significant number of votes in an election.

While Obama and McCain were the only candidates invited to participate in the 2008 presidential debates, four other candidates appeared on more than half of the state election ballots including Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party (37 states and/or Washington, D.C.), Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party (45 states and/or Washington, D.C.), Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party (32 states and/or Washington, D.C.), and Ralph Nader, an independent and Peace and Freedom candidate, who appeared on the ballot in 45 states and in Washington, D.C. In addition to these candidates, six other candidates appeared on at least three state ballots and an additional eleven on at least one ballot.

Hofstra University, where I teach social studies education and history hosted a presidential debate in 2008 and will do it again in 2012. Hofstra has made the debates a central focus of curriculum and campus life this summer and fall. Incoming freshman read Tension City by Jim Lehrer, who moderated a number of the past debates, and I was one of the faculty members invited to discuss the debates with them during Freshman Orientation.

Although I did not like the book very much, I love the debate and I am glad it is at Hofstra because it gives me the opportunity to join in the pageantry while expressing my first amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly. During the 2008 campaign, I was on the O'Reilly Factor discussing the election because I am from Hofstra. Bill O'Reilly called me a loon -- and I am proud of it.

On debate day, I am not going to be in the audience at the Hofstra Arena. Just as I was in 2008, I will be standing at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Uniondale Avenue with a picket sign and a t-shirt demanding that the candidates and whomever gets elected president respond to what I consider to be the real needs of the American people. I don't want to shock you, but I will shout out a four-letter word. The biggest need for all of use is J-O-B-S -- JOBS.

As a teacher, I examine the presidential debates with students to introduce them to a number of important questions that all citizens and voters need to consider. For example, if the debates are so important for democracy, why were there no presidential debates in 1964, 1968, and 1972? I think in 1964 and 1972, incumbent presidents did not want to elevate the public stature of their opponents. In 1968, Richard Nixon, still smarting from the 1960 debate with John Kennedy did not want the public to see his five o'clock shadow and beady eyes again.

Another important question is "Whose interests are the debates supposed to serve?" By 1984, while running for reelection, Ronald Reagan may have been suffering from early stages of dementia. Why didn't Walter Mondale or any of the debate moderators was the possibility with the public so the American people could decide whether reelecting Reagan was worth the risk?

In 1992, a Third Party candidate, Ross Perot, appeared on the podium with the Democratic and Republican standard bearers. It was the only time a third party candidate participated in the debates on an equal basis. How democratic is it when the very existence of alternative points of view is denied and third parties are blacked out. I would like to hear what Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for President has to say. Maybe some of you are interested in other candidates. Why are the Democrats and Republicans afraid to debate them? Why is the media complicit in keeping them off of the air?

It is way past time to democratize the presidential debates and the American voting process. While it would take a constitutional amendment to get rid of the antiquated Electoral College, the debates can be opened up relatively easily. In the 2008 presidential election both Ralph Nader and Bob Barr received over 500,000 popular votes. This could be the vote threshold for a third party's nominee to participate in the next round of presidential debates four years later.

Another possibility, which I think is even more reasonable, is to invite candidates that will appear on more than half of the state ballots to participate in the televised debates. In 2008 this would have meant that Ralph Nader (Independent, Peace and Freedom), Bob Barr (Libertarian), Chuck Baldwin (Constitution/Reform/U.S. Taxpayers), and Cynthia McKinney (Green, Independent, Mountain), would have joined Obama (Democrat), and McCain (Republican), on the podium and the American people would have heard a genuine and heated exchange of ideas about solving the problems facing the country and possibilities for the future of the nation.

The Democratic and Republican Parties do not own the presidential debates or the electoral process. It is past time to open up the debates in the name of genuine democracy.