Editorial: Presidential debates should be more inclusive
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 20:09
In five days, tens of millions of Americans will gather around their televisions and computers to watch the first presidential debate of the 2012 election. President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney will appear on stage to convince voters that their solutions will improve the country. But these are not the only two people running for president – there are numerous minor party candidates, most notably Libertarian Gary Johnson, who will be on the ballot in all 50 states. Many viewers will likely wonder why, and how, these candidates are excluded from the debate.
Contrary to what some people think, who gets to participate in the presidential debates is not governed by law. The debates are managed by an independent non-profit organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates, which works with major news organizations to put the events together. The Commission has three requirements for a candidate to be included in the debates: they must meet the Constitutional requirements to be elected president, they must be on the ballot in enough states to win the Electoral College and they must have received at least 15 percent support in five national polls.
These first two requirements are completely understandable – it would not be worth hearing from a candidate if he or she was under 35, not a citizen or not on the ballot in enough states to win the election. But it is the last requirement that we take issue with. Requiring candidates to have at least 15 percent support nationwide has effectively guaranteed that only Democrats and Republicans will qualify. And this is not because Americans love these two parties – a solid third of voters choose not to be affiliated with either of them.
Many polling organizations actually do not even include third-party candidates in their lists of options, making it impossible for them to garner 15 percent support. This exclusion, along with the minimal coverage in the mainstream media, leads to most Americans not being familiar with these candidates even if they agree with them wholeheartedly. In a recent Rasmussen poll that included Johnson, 63 percent of respondents said they did not know enough about Johnson to have any opinion on him at all. Despite this, Johnson is polling around 5 percent nationally, and as high as 13 percent in some states.
Americans deserve to be presented with as many viewpoints as is feasible. Of course, this must be balanced with the need for debates to be productive. Having dozens of candidates on stage would do little to educate voters on any of their options. A reform that would balance these competing interests would be for the Commission to throw out its 15 percent requirement and replace it with a graduating polling requirement. For example, there could be no polling requirement for the first debate, 7 percent support needed to participate in the second and 15 percent support needed for the third.
This would give the American public the opportunity to hear the voices of all candidates that could be elected. The field would gradually be narrowed, eliminating the candidates whose ideas are wildly unpopular and allowing the electorate to learn more about the viable candidates. While this would not solve all of the problems with American presidential elections, it would be a giant leap in the right direction.