Excluding independent parties, non-debates violate U.S. election commitments

U.S. pro-democracy activists protest the exclusion of independent parties at the presidential debate on Oct. 3, 2012. (Associated Press)

With debate season in the United States now in full swing, the U.S. electoral system is continuing to demonstrate its institutional hostility to the candidacies of independent or so-called “third parties,” in violation of international commitments related to holding democratic elections.

In the presidential debate last week and the vice-presidential debate Thursday night, voters were only permitted to hear the perspectives of the two leading parties, while smaller, independent parties were prohibited from participating. This is likely a violation of U.S. election commitments as spelled out in the OSCE Copenhagen Document, which the United States signed in 1990.

This agreement requires OSCE member states to hold “free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.” Further, OSCE countries must

respect the right of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organizations, without discrimination;

respect the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political parties or other political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete  with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities;

Although the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties has long been established in American politics as a general fact of life, the international obligations of the United States require the authorities to strive to treat individuals and groups seeking office equally in order compete on something like a level playing field.  In addition to enormous financial disadvantages and other institutional biases that third parties face, their exclusion from televised debates represent perhaps one of the most insurmountable challenges to independent candidates.

Without access to the media and denied the opportunity to present their views to the public, not only are the candidates denied their rights to compete “on a basis of equal treatment,” but voters are denied “the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives.”

It is, as author and executive director of Open Debates George Farah explained recently on Democracy Now, a bipartisan conspiracy “to deceive the American people.”

The body that sets the rules of these events, the Commission on Presidential Debates, “sounds like a government agency,” Farah pointed out. “It sounds like a nonpartisan entity, which is by design.” But in reality, says Farah, “it’s a private corporation, financed primarily by Anheuser-Busch and other major companies, that was created by the Republican and Democratic parties to seize control of the presidential debates from the League of Women Voters in 1987.”

Every four years, the commission permits the major-party campaigns to meet behind closed doors and draft a secret contract that dictates the terms of the debates, which provides for the exclusion of third parties. As Farah points out,

Third-party candidates face extraordinary structural barriers—discriminatory ballot access, scant media coverage, loyalties of the political—in the voting public, enormous campaign finance disparities. So, if they manage to convince a majority of Americans that they ought to be included in the presidential debates, it’s outrageous that a private corporation backed by Anheuser-Busch, controlled by the two parties, is telling them no. It absolutely is a catch-22.

These exclusionary policies have consistently drawn the attention of international observers of U.S. elections.

Following the 2008 presidential election, for example, the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which has been monitoring U.S. elections since the disputed Bush-Gore election in 2000 – noted that “reporting on third party and independent presidential candidates was marginal.”

“The four television debates between the candidates” in 2008 “were the highlight of extensive media coverage with an estimated total of around 70 million viewers,” the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly noted. “The two leading presidential candidates were the main focus of journalistic reporting and contestants extensively used paid advertising, leading to a very limited visibility of other political parties and candidates.”

The OSCE’s post-election report on the 2010 midterms pointed out “that the media tended to organize debates only between candidates of the two strongest parties, thus limiting access of third-party contestants.”

With the tightly controlled and exclusionary debate system run by the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the American people are denied true debates on substantive issues. In last week’s debate between Barack and Mitt Romney, for example, the two presidential candidates agreed with each other on far more issues than they disagreed on.

“When it comes to our tax code, Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high,” President Obama stated at one point, following up with: “On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we’ve got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they’ve been in years.”

Romney later reiterated their agreement on taxes, pointing out that on “taxation, we agree, we ought to bring the tax rates down.”

In all, the two candidates expressed agreement with each other on policy issues at least half a dozen times, while the word “disagree” showed up during the debate a total of zero times. And of course, this doesn’t even factor in issues that weren’t asked about during the debate because there is such a commonly understood bipartisan consensus, for example on the drug war, crime and punishment, and gun laws.

As the candidates prepare for further debates in the coming weeks, voters should at least be reminded that these are not real debates at all, but rather choreographed joint press conferences between the two dominant candidates. And the U.S. political class should bear in mind that this approach to debating and to elections in general – an approach that denies candidates the ability to compete and voters the ability to choose among a variety of viewpoints – is in violation of U.S. commitments on democratic elections.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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