To most viewers, presidential debates appear an important component of a healthy democracy. Away from the noise of television ads and talking heads, the candidates have an opportunity to clearly articulate answers to questions of interest about American governance, providing vital information to voters. Now, 18 pro-democracy groups are calling attention to the possibility of foul play in presidential debates. Less than a week before the first presidential debate, they have appealed to the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to release the contract made between the Obama and Romney campaigns which outlines the rules of this fall's debates.
“In denying voters access to critical information about our most important electoral events, the Commission on Presidential Debates is more concerned with the partisan interests of the two major party candidates than the democratic interests of the voting public,” said George Farah, Executive Director of Open Debates.
Since 1988, the CPD, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) corporation,” has overseen every aspect of the electoral events in collaboration with the two major parties, together deciding everything from who participates to the rules of the game.
The objectivity of the CPD has long been disputed, and is a key component of the history of the organization’s role in American politics. In the three televised presidential debates prior to 1988, the League of Women Voters moderated. The organization withdrew from its role in 1988, claiming the contract negotiated by the Dukakis and Bush campaigns “would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” calling the campaigns’ demands for control over the debates’ proceedings “outrageous.”
This year, the secret contract negotiated between the Romney and Obama campaigns and approved by the CPD has angered media watchdogs even more, after the CPD announced the unprecedented decision to share the topics of the debate with the candidates ahead of time.
“The candidates shouldn’t be told what the questions are before the exam,” said Farah, . “Obama and Romney are running for the highest office in the country and, like their predecessors, should be compelled to think on their feet during the debates, rather than recite a series of memorized sound-bites.”
The prominent role of the Democratic and Republican campaigns in negotiating the terms of the contract has worried pro-democracy advocates who would like to see greater seriousness and less scripted civility in the presidential debates.
"A debate is a head-to-head, spontaneous, structured argument over the merits of an issue," Connie Rice, a preeminent civil rights lawyer told NPR when discussing the released 2004 presidential debate contract. "Under the ridiculous 32-page  contract that reads like the rules for the Miss America Pageant, there will be no candidate-to-candidate questions, no rebuttal to your opponent's points, no cross questions or cross answers, no rebuttals, no follow-up questions — that's not a debate, that's a news conference."
Third parties with candidates running for the presidency have largely been excluded from presidential debates following a 2000 decision by the CPD to require a candidate commands at least 15% of the vote in five national polls to participate.
“The CPD is under the total control of the Republican and Democratic parties and by definition bipartisan, not non-partisan,” said Rice.
The commission is led by two members of the major parties, Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and CEO of the American Gaming Association, and Michael D. McCurry, a prominent Democrat and communications consultant.
In previous years, the contract negotiated by the Republican and Democratic campaigns and approved by the CPD has governed the very makeup of the audience, requiring an audience of pre-selected “soft” supporters of the candidates who are required to “observe in silence.”
"It's not enough to rig the debate — they have to rig the audience, too?” Rice said, discussing the most recent publicly available contract from the 2004 debates.
So what does this year’s contract have in store for October’s debates?
With little transparency from the CPD, we can be assured of another season of excellent presidential theater, but a scripted show.