US voters: Not spoilt for choice

Excluded from the presidential debates, ignored by the US media – why are third party candidates being sidelined?

How can US voters make an informed choice for president when most are not even aware who is on the ballot?

The majority of Americans are incredibly ignorant about what our government is doing, about solutions that are available. And in the majority of states the majority of people will see names on the ballot and have never heard them before – will have no idea what the choices are for president …. This was not a a debate, this was a rehearsed staged performance by a pair of parties largely cooperating on the agenda of presenting the simulation of a debate.

– David Swanson,  a former 2004 presidential campaign aide

While they may be running for the presidency of the US, most Americans would not recognise many of the so-called third party candidates representing the Libertarian and Green Parties running in this year’s presidential election. 

Routinely ignored by both of the two dominant parties and the US media, they nevertheless appear on enough ballots to win – in theory – the all-important 270 electoral college votes needed to become president.

And there are many more presidential candidates who also appear on many ballots around the US.

However, in the country that is often claimed to be the greatest democracy in the world, they are all excluded from all of the televised presidential debates.

This week, Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, along with her running mate, Cheri Honkala, were arrested while protesting their exclusion outside Hofstra University – the location of the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

It has become clear over the course of the election campaign that from the deficit to foreign policy, Obama and Romney share the same fundamental ideological framework. So, what sort of choice are US voters being given as they vote in November?

One other reform that is tangible and that is reform to the presidential debate process itself, we need to break the monopoly the commission has over this process … if we simply exert sufficient pressure over the major party candidates. Ultimately of course, they are running for our votes. And if enough voters demand and raise their expectations and insist upon it … we are going to see a flourishing of debates and more inclusive debates in greater formats.

– George Farah, Open Debates

The Commission on Presidential Debates has established three conditions that determine who gets to participate in debates.

First, the candidate must be constitutionally eligible – at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen and a 14-year US resident.

Then there is ballot access: The candidate’s name must appear on enough state ballots to have a chance at the presidency.

  • The Libertarian party’s candidate Gary Johnson will be on the ballot in 48 states as well as the district of Columbia, all but Oklahoma and Michigan
  • The Green Party candidate, Jill Stein is on the ballot in 37 states and DC
  • The Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode is on the ballot in 26 states and DC
  • Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party is on the ballot in 15 states and DC.

Finally, there is electoral support: the candidate must show that he or she can garner at least 15 per cent of the electorate. According to the CPD, this is determined by an average of five national organisations, using data obtained near the time of the debate.

A poll conducted at the beginning of this year, found that:

  • Nearly half of Americans believe it is time for the creation of a major third party
  • 68 per cent of those surveyed said they would definitely vote for or consider voting for a third party candidate that they agreed with on most issues
  • Only 28 per cent said they definitely would not consider voting for a third party candidate

So why are third parties excluded from the official presidential debates and mainstream coverage?

To discuss this on Inside Story US 2012, presenter Shihab Rattansi is joined by guests: George Farrah, the executive director of Open Debates, a non-profit organisation working to reform the presidential debates; David Swanson, a former press secretary for the Dennis Kucinich 2004 presidential campaign; and Christina Tobin, the founder and chair of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation.

“All of these things (healthcare, job creation, downsizing the military) are things that the American public is clamouring for and this is exactly why the Democrat and Republican parties feel they must control the microphone because the American public is already there. If they learn that they actually have a candidate that supports these solutions that people desperately need right now – all bets are off of what that impact might be on this election and beyond this election.” 

Jill Stein, Green Party