United States Fails to Follow Its Own Recommendations on Debates

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) developed recommendations in 2014 for debates called Organizing and Producing Debates: An International Guide" to assist countries around the world in best practices. The guide advocates for open debates and other platforms so that all candidate's voices can be heard. They also advise debate moderators to ask follow up questions to clarify candidate's views.

These recommendations are ignored at the state and national levels in the United States. In fact, debate criteria are intentionally designed to exclude candidates from alternative parties by setting high polling requirements from the start.

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And major party candidates have a heavy influence over the process. At the Presidential level, the 'Commission' on Presidential Debates is actually not a commission at all but a corporation created by the Democrats and Republicans. They have not allowed an alternative party candidate to participate since Ross Perot even though 76% of people favor open debates. In Maryland, Chris Van Hollen, the front runner in the senate race, only agreed to two debates, whereas Kathy Szeliga preferred six debates. It is to Van Hollen's advantage to have fewer debates in the heavily democratic state, and to his advantage to exclude me.

As we enter the debate season, I have been working to be included in the debates. In a representative democracy, one would think that the media's responsibility, especially the public media, would be to inform voters about their choices on election day. Instead, debate organizers have used criteria that inevitably exclude. 

The Kojo Nnamdi show, which will hold the first debate today, is sticking to a 10% polling cut-off. I met with Kojo and the producers to explain that this criterion is a unfair hurdle for a statewide race such as mine when the major media outlets barely inform readers of my campaign. It reinforces the pay-to-play system of politics because only candidates who raise millions and can buy media, have a voice. I was told that they would not change their criteria, but they have invited me to be on the show on October 14.

The University of Baltimore's Center for Public Policy in partnership with the Maryland League of Women Voters, The Baltimore Sun and WJZ, are using an even stricter polling criterion of 15%. So is Maryland Public Television. Both of these groups have other criteria that I meet - qualifying to be on the ballot, having an office and staff, showing evidence of a statewide campaign - but they choose to use the polling criterion to exclude me.

When I push on these outlets, they invariably come up with the excuse that the polling criteria are necessary to keep the number of participants to a reasonable level so that voters get a chance to hear their views. This begs the question of what a reasonable number of participants would be.

According to USAID, candidate debates should have eight or fewer participants. If there are more than eight candidates, they recommend multiple rounds of debates and then a run-off debate using audience surveys and other criteria, which show evidence of a serious campaign, to choose the top contenders. They also recommend inclusive candidate forums and media coverage so that voters are informed.

We must work to reduce the barriers to alternative candidates by exposing unfair practices and pressuring outlets to change their criteria. This is especially important now because voters are rejecting the two wealth-dominated political parties and favor both alternative parties and open debates.

In the meantime, we are working to reach voters through social media and other outlets. And it's working! The most recent poll has me at 5%, more than twice where I was in the first poll.

We will be live tweeting my responses to the Kojo Nnamdi Show debate today, October 7, from noon to 1 pm. And we will post those responses on Facebook here. You can help by joining our Twitter storm at 11:45 am. Find sample tweets here. And you can help by liking, commenting on and sharing the Facebook page.

We are working to build political power to challenge wealth-dominated politics so that we can win the changes we need to lift up people and protect the planet. We will persevere.

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