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In the Public Interest

Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)
By Ralph Nader
May 1, 2002

On the evening of October 3, 2000, the mis-named Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) ignored my ticket-in-hand to go to an adjoining auditorium on the campus of the University of Massachusetts and watch the Gore-Bush debate on closed-circuit television. With a state trooper by his side, the "security consultant" for the CPD made it very clear that I should leave the campus of a public University.

The CPD is not a governmental entity, despite its official sounding name. It is a private corporation, created in 1987 by the Republican and Democratic Parties to replace the League of Women Voters and control every iota of debate frequency, format, location, participation, selection of the questioner, etc. By securing the television networks coverage, to the exclusion of all other potential sponsors, the CPD is a private corporate monopoly over access to tens of millions of voters in the crucial month of October.

The CPD's arrogance and misuse of the Massachusetts police to exclude me from the campus because of my political criticism of the CPD and my running on the Green Party ticket invited a response. On October 5th I sent a letter to the CPD demanding an official apology and a contribution of $25,000 to the nonprofit Appleseed Center for Electoral Reform at Harvard Law School. The CPD refused. On October 17, 2000 I filed suit in federal district court in Boston charging a violation of my civil rights.

After losing all court motions to dismiss the case, the CPD, having spent about $500,000, decided to settle just before trial. We requested the sum we had asked for in October 2000. The corporate lawyers for the Commission agreed, on behalf of their client and co-chairs, Republican FrankFahrenkopf, Jr. and Democrat Paul Kirk, Jr., to send a letter of apology and $25,000.

Their attorney, for all those staggering legal fees, had to do something to reduce the CPD's embarrassment. So they insisted that the money go to pay our up-to-then pro bono attorneys, Howard Friedman and Jason Adkins. Which was what we were intending to do all along. And, of course, as is customary in a settlement agreement, the CPD denied all liability, as did their security consultant who also paid $26,000.

No sooner than the ink was dry on the settlement agreement than the spin flaks for the CPD swung into their distortions. They found a Boston Globe columnist to say that the victory -- receiving twice what we asked for in October 2000 -- was a defeat. The columnist called the settlement sums "chump change." He discounted the apology as just a formalism to get rid of the lawsuit which, of course, arose out of a rejected demand by us for an apology.

The depositions and discovery during the pretrial period elicited some useful material for followup by reporters. The CPD's consultant produced a "face book" with photographs of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of four Third Parties as a guide to their enforcement personnel. If any of them showed up, such as Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party, they also were to be excluded from the campus -- again based only on their contrary political views.

Exclusion is the CPD's main reason for being. It sets up a near impossible Catch-22 -- requiring for entry to the debate stage a Third party candidate achieving an average of 15 percent in five named polls by September. Low polls, little media, little media, low polls. It mattered not that it takes just 5 percent for a Third Party to receive federal matching funds in the next election cycle four years later. It mattered not to the CPD that several major national polls resulted in a majority of the responding Americans wanting me and Buchanan on the debates. One Fox poll reached 64 percent.

Looking ahead, the very bi-partisan CPD needs to be decisively displaced by a broad based peoples' presidential debate association that is non-partisan and is not under the control of any party, parties, candidate or candidates.

A decaying political system cannot regenerate itself unless it opens its doors on the ballot and on the debates to third parties, which historically when given a change, especially in the 19th century, have done just that, before high ballot barriers and debate commissions arrived on the scene.

Third party candidates could campaign in all 50 states, could be on the ballot in most or all states, can attract large audiences and still manage to reach less than 2 percent of the voters that being on just one televised debate could reach.

Nature allows seeds to sprout to regenerate itself. Without small business and innovators having a chance, the business world could not regenerate itself. It is time to open the highways and level the playing fields. It is also time for public funding of public elections and some free access to the electronic media -- which uses our public airwaves -- for ballot-qualified candidates.

Readers interested in joining the effort to start a new presidential debates organization can write to Debates, P. O. Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036 about how they are willing to help.