The US loves to point out flaws in other countries’ elections. We slammed Yugoslavia’s September presidential election because international observers were not allowed to verify the fairness of the electoral process, and Peru’s recent elections after international observers said the ruling party denied opposition candidates access to the media. The same observers also accused Peru’s ruling party of using state police power to restrict the activities of opposition candidates. And government policies resulting in the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities have often led to elections being condemned as undemocratic by outside observers. But US elections are above such unpleasantness, right? Wrong.
If international observers were to oversee this year’s US presidential campaign, there is little doubt they would declare the process undemocratic. The ruling parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—have used their power to restrict the opposition parties’ access to the most important media events of the campaign. They have used police to prevent an opposition candidate from attending a major campaign function, and have excluded an official party’s candidates from the regular ballot. And as a result of politically motivated, racially biased policies, an ethnic minority is disproportionately disenfranchised.
One US criticism of the recent Peruvian election was the ruling party’s denial of media access to opposition parties. Meanwhile, however, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan have been barred from participating in the media event that has proven to be the single most effective way to reach American voters: the debates. Exit polls in the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections showed that more voters based their decision on the debates than any other factor. This year, each debate is expected to draw an audience of up to 75 million—approximately the same number of Americans that will vote in the election. Yet far from observing democratic principles, the debates are controlled by a private club with admittance reserved for members only.
The criteria that determines participation in the debates is established by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)—a private non-profit corporation that is controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties. The founders and co-chairmen of the CPD are Paul Kirk, former chairman of the Democratic Party, and Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican Party. The fact that third party candidates have to seek the approval of the Republican and Democratic parties in order to participate in the debates is akin to a new car manufacturer being forced to ask permission from Ford and General Motors to enter the automobile market.
During the 1992 presidential election campaign, independent candidate Ross Perot was allowed to participate in the debates; on election day he wound up with 19 percent of the vote. Despite that impressive showing—or perhaps because of it—the CPD in 1996 barred Perot from the presidential debates because he didn’t meet their criteria of “nonmajor party candidates … who have a realistic (i.e., more than theoretical) chance of being elected the next President of the United States.” Perot had lost to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election by 24 percent of the vote — the same margin by which George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in 1972. Everyone knew that McGovern never had a “realistic” chance of winning. The same could also be said for Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan by 17 percent in 1984. Yet there was never any discussion about barring these two Democratic candidates from the debates.
The CPD’s arbitrarily-established criteria for this year’s presidential debates includes the stipulation that all participants must be polling at least 15 percent—a classic Catch-22, since a third-party candidate needs the debate’s prime-time media exposure to attain high poll numbers. Furthermore, the polls target “likely voters”; a third-party candidate such as Nader appeals to disenchanted Americans who normally don’t vote, and therefore are not polled.
If the 15-percent criteria had been applied in Minnesota’s last gubernatorial election, Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura, who was only at 8 percent in the polls before the debates, may not have won. It certainly doesn’t reflect what the American people actually want: A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken prior to the first debate showed that 64 percent of Americans thought Nader and Buchanan should be in the debates.
Nader was not allowed even to sit in the audience at the first debate on October 3: A CPD representative and three Boston policemen physically barred him from entering. Afterwards Nader said, “A private company—controlled by the two major parties and funded by beer, tobacco, auto and other corporations—misused police power to exclude me from the premises, even though I had a ticket to enter issued by the debate commission themselves.”
The major parties also discriminated against Nader’s Green Party in New York’s Sept. 12 Senate primary. Three weeks prior to the primary, New York City Board of Elections officials said there was no room on the electronic ballot for Green Party candidates. The largest city in the most technologically advanced country in the world told Green Party voters they would have to write their candidate’s name on a piece of paper.
Even more troubling than anti-third-party ballot discrimination is the racial discrimination that has resulted in ever-increasing numbers of African-American men becoming disenfranchised. According to the Sentencing Project, 14 states strip convicted felons of their right to vote, even after they have paid their debt to society. Black males constitute a disproportionate number of those disenfranchised because of drug enforcement policies that specifically target minority neighborhoods. While blacks only constitute 13 percent of the nation’s drug users, 74 percent of those in prison for drug offenses are African-American. As a result, 1.4 million African-American men—13 percent of the black male population—have lost their voting rights for life.
Barring opposition candidates from major media events, using police to keep them out of a debate, discriminating against them on ballots and disenfranchising minority voters—what would the international observers say? Probably that the US isn’t really so different from Yugoslavia, Peru and the many other countries that need outside monitors to verify the legitimacy of their democratic systems.
This article previously appeared in Mother Jones