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Lane Filler: Two parties have unfair stranglehold on debates

  • Newsday
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, at 12 a.m.

We have a two-party system — not by law, but because the Democrats and the Republicans have seized the mechanisms of government. They use their control to maintain power, and other parties can’t compete. This causes a bunch of self-perpetuating, corrosive behaviors, like government-funded primaries for these major parties, which are really nothing but private organizations.

Another, more pressing way the Republicans and Democrats control the process came about in the late 1980s when the two major parties created the “nonpartisan” Commission on Presidential Debates and crowded out the League of Women Voters, which had run the general election debates until then.

In 1988, the league withdrew, saying in a statement that “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.” The league was right. The debates have largely been unfair and prepackaged since then, and the Commission on Presidential Debates is currently run by a former head of the Republican National Committee and a former White House press secretary (under Bill Clinton). And no one from any other party need apply.

We now have an estimated 90 million “unlikely voters.” These are citizens eligible to cast a ballot who likely won’t bother.

They say their vote won’t matter, that there’s nothing worth voting for. Interestingly, about 20 percent say they would vote for a third-party candidate if they did bother to cast a ballot, and 53 percent say third parties are needed.

In a phone interview, Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who’s heading the Libertarian Party ticket, told a miserable tale. He tried to run for president as a Republican this time and was barred from most of the debates, even though, he says, he had the 4 percent support in a national poll needed to qualify.

“How would you feel about that?” he asked, a bit plaintively. “What if it were you?”

Then he accepted the Libertarian Party nomination, and he can’t get a lectern in the three general election debates, where the requirement is 15 percent support in a major poll. He’s suing the Commission on Presidential Debates, but is unlikely to win in court. Regardless, he believes he’s polling at 6 percent nationally – and higher in many states – and what he draws could decide the race in a few of them, in the style of Ralph Nader in 2000.

Few would want every lunatic who says he’s running for president on the stage. But it would be good to have more debates, and to hear from more than the two big brands. What if every candidate on the ballot in at least half the states got to participate in a debate or two, and standards toughened for later forums?

It feels like “the establishment” – the corporations and power players – don’t care which of the two major candidates wins. They just want to be sure a Ron Paul, a Gary Johnson, a Dennis Kucinich and a Ralph Nader can’t win or, really, that their often unconventional ideas can’t be heard. And until enough people make noise about it, inside the voting booth and out, it won’t change.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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