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ABOLISH COMMISSION, OPEN DOORS TO 'OTHERS'

Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
TOM SANDER SENIOR EDITORIAL WRITER
June 21, 2003 Saturday Broward Metro Edition

Most Americans share a belief, enshrined in their Constitution and laws, of the desirability of rules treating everyone fairly and evenhandedly.

That's why the idea of locking minor-party and independent political candidates out of official, nationally televised presidential debates is so abhorrent, and so urgently in need of reform.

Fortunately, four minor-party candidates are taking action to change the debates' sponsor and, they hope, debate rules, to let all qualified candidates regardless of party label compete equally in future debates. In three of the last four elections, only Democratic and Republican nominees were let into the presidential debates.

The four candidates filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the Federal Elections Commission, asking it to block the Commission on Presidential Debates from sponsoring official debates in 2004. They claimed that the CPD, supposedly nonpartisan, is in fact totally partisan, and it is.

Judge for yourself: The CPD was formed only by the two major parties. Its cochairs are former chairmen of the two major parties, Republican Frank Fahrenkopf and Democrat Paul Kirk. And it only let Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush and their running mates into debates in 2000, excluding minor-party candidates, even though they were on the ballot in most states.

The complaint says the CPD even used a "face-book" of candidate photos so ushers could keep them out, even those with a ticket.

The complaint asks the FEC to order the CPD to return the millions of dollars it raised privately to stage the debates.

CPD Executive Director Janet Brown called the complaint a rehashing of "baseless claims" that both the FEC and a federal court had rejected three years ago. She said the FEC had also previously found its candidate selection criteria to be in full compliance with federal law.

Even if it's legal, it's not right.

The complaint was filed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Green Party presidential nominee in 2000; John Hagelin, Natural Law Party; Pat Buchanan, Reform Party; and Howard Phillips, Constitution Party. All were on 40 state ballots, including Florida's.

CPD exclusionary rules amount to a classic Catch-22. Minor-party candidates can't debate unless they average at least 15 percent voter support in five national polls. But being in the debates is a key way for candidates to rise above also-ran status and expand their voter support.

In 1998, Reform Party nominee Jesse Ventura was showing well below 15 percent in statewide voter polls in Minnesota before he surged after a charismatic appearance in 10 TV debates. He credits those debates for making him governor.

Even if minor-party candidates only rarely win, their campaign issues often are adopted by one of the two major parties.

The CPD's policy is insupportable, unjust and discriminatory. The notion that minor-party or independent candidates can't win a major election -- and thus don't merit a place in the debates -- just isn't true. Just look at Ventura or independent U.S. Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

In Florida, the two major parties represent shrinking parts of the electorate. Since January 1995, Republicans fell from 42 percent to 39 percent, while Democrats dipped from 49 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, independent and minor-party voters rose from 8 percent to 19 percent.

It's time to abolish the Commission on Presidential Debates, which denies free speech and fair play. Instead, find a truly nonpartisan, independent organization, like former debate sponsor the League of Women Voters, to run the show.

And open the debates to any presidential candidate who has won ballot position in enough states to collect the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

Having presidential debates with only the No. 1 and 2 contenders is like holding the Olympic Games and saying some nations can't even compete because, as the judges already know, their athletes can't win.

The "other" candidates deserve an equal chance to be heard. Their public speaking skills, choice of campaign issues, goals for the presidency and vision for America could energize the debates, permit discussion of a wider range of issues, encourage a greater voter turnout and even change some voters' minds.