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Jill Stein Arrest: Why the CPD Shutting Out Third Party Candidates Like Gary Johnson Matters

The arrest of Green Party presidential and vice presidential candidates Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala outside the presidential debate venue on Tuesday night highlights serious questions about the influence of the Commission for Presidential Debates (CPD) on the outcomes of election day.

Stein and Honkala have been campaigning to be allowed to speak at the presidential debates since August of this year. However, their requests and petitions to participate have fallen on deaf ears. They were excluded from Tuesday's debate despite the fact that their names will appear on 85% of the ballots, enough ballots required to be elected president and vice president of the United States. The federal government has also approved Stein’s campaign for matching funds, recognizing her as a qualified presidential candidate.

But Jill Stein is not the only third party candidate on the ballot this coming November who did not make an appearance on Tuesday.

In fact, third party candidates like Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party have the potential to influence the outcomes of this election. Their exclusion from the debates by the CPD clearly limits the opportunities that voters have to consider other presidential candidates, contributing to the entrenchment of the two-party system that has come to dominate United States politics.

In other words, the premises of the upcoming elections have in some way been already determined by who is allowed to speak during the debates.

Tuesday night's arrest of Stein and Honkala comes amid serious concerns raised about the role of the CPD in ensuring open debate and accountability among the presidential nominees. On Monday, a memorandum of understanding between the Romney and Obama campaigns regarding the conduct of the debate was published, proving the sort of influence that two major parties in the U.S. have in determining the parameters of political debate. 

In the memo, Clause 2 states that the CPD may sponsor the debate, “subject to [the CPD's] expression of willingness to employ the provisions of this agreement in conducting these debates.” The memo’s publication followed guarantees sought by both the Obama and Romney campaigns that the moderator Candy Crowley had little influence over the topics discussed. 

The influence that the Republican and Democratic Parties have on the CPD should provoke several questions.

What is the responsibility of the Commission in ensuring voters have access to information about a candidate’s platforms and credibility? Why are third-party candidates not allowed to debate? What mechanisms are there in place to ensure that the Commission contributes to, rather than limits, democracy in the United States? 

The CPD’s stranglehold on the presidential debates needs to be reformed in order to ensure that elections in the United States are free and fair. Since the debates attract tens of millions of viewers, opening up the debates ensures that voters are informed and involved. Opening up the debates might also force the candidates to come up with actual substantive policies rather than trade political brickbat.

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