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Re-thinking Presidential Debates

by Vince Page

There were five presidential candidates in 2004 who were on the ballot in enough States to win the presidency, yet only two of the five were ever presented to the public by the broadcast media in a debate format. This may actually have been illegal.

At its website, the Commission on Presidential Debates describes itself using the adjective "non-partisan", yet the adjective belies the facts. Let's take a look at the composition of the Commission on Presidential Debates:


  • Frank Fahrenkopf — former RNC Chairman
  • Paul Kirk — former DNC Chairman

Board of Directors

  • Howard Buffet — former Republican Congressman from Nebraska
  • Jennifer Dunn — former Republican Congressman from Washington State
  • Antonia Hernandez — President, Mexican-American Legal Defense & Educational Fund
  • Caroline Kennedy — famous Democrat
  • Newton Minnow — former FCC Chairman
  • Dorothy Ridings — President / CEO, Council on Foundations
  • H. Patrick Swygert — President, Howard University, Washington D.C.

Even those Commission members who are not integrally tied to the Republicans or Democrats still have leanings towards one of these two parties. There is no Third Party representation on the Commission.

So who put this Commission in charge of presidential debates? Apparently, they put themselves in charge in 1987 by actively soliciting enough donations from big business to allow the Commission to sponsor and produce presidential and vice-presidential debates. That means there will be voters in the next presidential election cycle who have never seen a presidential debate produced by anyone other than the CPD.

So what's wrong with that? Well, the problem stems from the Commission's criteria for determining who will and who will not be allowed to participate in a presidential debate. Their criteria is as follows:

1.) The candidate must be Constitutionally eligible to hold the Office of President of the United States.

2.) The candidate must have achieved ballot access in a sufficient number of States to win a theoretical Electoral College majority in the general election.

3.) The candidate must have demonstrated a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results.

Now, here's a little quiz. Which of the above requirements are objective and which are subjective?

Certainly the first requirement is objective, since violation of it makes the candidate Constitutionally unfit for office. The Constitutional requirements, by the way, to hold the office of president are that the candidate must be a natural born citizen, must be at least 35 years of age and must have been a resident in the United States for at least 14 years. The latter two requirements must be satisfied by inauguration day. That's it. Nothing more.

The second requirement can also be judged as objective if and only if qualified write-in candidates are afforded the same status as candidates whose names appear on the ballot. Qualified write-in candidates must designate electors just like all other presidential candidates, and since the fundamental objective of the second requirement is to make certain that a candidate can mathematically win a majority of Electoral College votes, it matters not whether the candidate's name appears on the ballot or whether the candidate is a qualified write-in. If the CPD will stipulate that all States in which a candidate qualifies as a write-in are counted when they assess eligibility according to the second requirement, then I will stipulate that the second requirement is objective.

The third requirement — which requires that the candidate poll at least 15% support nationally as described above — can in no way be considered objective. Why not make it 51%? After all, a candidate who can't poll at least 51% might not win. Why not make it 14% or 14.5%, and if 14% is a good number what's wrong with 1%, or 0.5%, or 0.00005%? Here lies the problem. The third requirement is subjective and it is specifically designed to limit the presidential candidates presented to the American people by the broadcast media. More specifically, it is designed to limit those candidates to the Republican and Democrat contenders.

There's a little problem with this. You see, the Federal Communications Commission has a legal requirement which states that debate sponsors must extend invitations to candidates based upon the application of "pre-established, objective" criteria (emphasis added).

There is no possible formula involving the polls that would ever make polling criteria objective. In fact, if we had used the exit polls at 4:00 pm on election day to determine our next president, John Kerry would have won. That's how subjective polling data can be.

The FCC requirements are placed on the broadcast media as well as on debate sponsors because we, the People, own the airwaves. Did the debate sponsors and the broadcast media comply with the legal requirements that we, the People, have set into law as a prerequisite for use of our airwaves during presidential debates? I would submit that neither did so, since the broadcast media made no attempt to rectify the failings of the flawed system implemented by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

But was anyone harmed by this process? Yes, indeed, they were. The affected Third Parties must garner a certain percentage of the vote — which varies by State — to automatically qualify for ballot access in the next general election. The failure of the CPD to use purely objective criteria in determining which candidates would be allowed into the debate severely limited the exposure of those candidates who were subjectively excluded. Consequently, the Third Parties to which the excluded candidates belong were damaged since the CPD and the broadcast media interfered with their efforts to obtain future ballot access.

So what do we do about it? There are two things that come to mind. First, we need to contact the national CPD sponsors for the 2004 presidential debates and let them know that they quite possibly participated in an illegal event. We should then give them a link to this article so they can learn more. Relevant contacts for these national sponsors are as follows:

Second, the injured parties — namely, the Third Parties — need to file a lawsuit or bring this to the attention of the FCC in a forceful manner. Every Third Party in existence has able legal counsel with which to do this. A class action might work better than individual action, but this is a matter for the lawyers to sort out. It may even be possible to obtain the support of Ralph Nader in these actions, although his previous legal filings have been structured to benefit himself rather than Third Parties. There is some doubt that Mr. Nader can stop being a maverick long enough to be a team player, which should be an important issue discussed on Day 1 if he is involved.

Finally, all Third Parties must resign themselves to the fact that none of them will ever garner enough exposure and votes to qualify consistently for ballot access year after year unless they are afforded equal treatment in an objective way according to FCC regulations. As Dan Rather might say, we're all in this duck pond together, and if we want to fly out of here, we've gotta make sure the guys with the big guns don't shoot us down.

Fortunately for us, we are not ducks. We are American citizens. We have rights, and there are legalities involved here.

Now is the time to press the issue.

Vince Page is the Communications Director for the Texas State Constitution Party and is a District Deputy for the Texas State Knights of Columbus. He can be e-mailed at


When honest people who hold strong opinions come together, it is natural that they state their opinions, and that those opinions occasionally clash. The articles that you see on this website represent the opinion of the writers, and are not the official opinion of this party. To see the official party position on any question, the reader is referred to the Party Platform.

Permission to reprint/republish granted, as long as you include the name of our site, the author,and our URL. All CP Texas reports, and all editorials are property of The Constitution Party of Texas 2002 (unless otherwise noted).

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