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The system isn’t rigged: your candidate just didn’t do well

| Friday, September 30, 2016

On September 28, 2016, a letter to the editor (“Why I am Boycotting the Presidential Debate”) was published. The author of this letter argues that Libertarian Gary Johnson’s absence from Monday’s presidential debate reduced the quality of its dialogue and went against American democracy. Despite trying to assert otherwise, the author frames his letter as an argument for Gary Johnson, excluding key facts in his analysis. What is more, his argument for why Gary Johnson should be allowed to debate does not hold.

A concern of the author is that Monday’s presidential debate was “decidedly and unapologetically undemocratic” because “it favor[ed] major party candidates.” He elaborates that America was founded on the principle of democracy, where all are heard. While this definition is generally true, it is not enough to argue that “favoring” the major party candidates in a debate is undemocratic. The United States has always been a “two party” democratic system. Since the presidential election of 1796—the first after George Washington resigned—candidates aligned to one of two parties. Third parties have rarely gained national recognition. The American Party, Progressive Party, and Socialist Party are exceptions. Even then, these third parties did not win the presidency.

While third parties may not win major elections, their presence is evidence enough to indicate that citizens are upset with the major parties. People who support third party candidates are heard, even if their candidates are not. Major party candidates listen to supporters of third party candidates because they voice the strongest dissatisfaction with the current system. Being able to compromise and unite with third party supporters means greater chances of victory. Third party candidates do change politics, despite not making it into presidential debates. The two party system is structured how it has always been. If one is to claim a major component of the American electoral process is undemocratic because major parties are more present than third parties, then America has never been democratic.

I would like to answer the main question the author poses: why Gary Johnson was excluded from debating. The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) seeks to provide information to the voters via debates, as the author states. What he fails to address is the process by which the CPD selects participants. On top of Constitutional eligibility and appearance on enough state ballots to win a majority of electoral votes, the CPD set a minimum 15 percent national approval threshold for any candidate to qualify for a presidential debate. This threshold has been in effect since 2000, after numerous academic studies suggested this number would be substantially inclusive to candidates without lessening the quality of debate. To determine whether a candidate meets this threshold, the CPD assesses the average of five national polls right before the debate.

Gary Johnson is constitutionally eligible to be President. He is on the ballot in 50 states. Where he falls short is in the national polls. In the polls used by the CPD, Johnson did not score above 13 percent at the time the CPD decided who qualified for the debate. Even if the CPD were to use different polls, Johnson would not qualify; the largest percentage Johnson currently has is 13 percent. Johnson fails to meet the requirements to debate, fair and square. Some may argue that the system is rigged, but this 15 percent threshold is not unattainable. In 1968, 1980, and 1992, third party candidates all qualified for the presidential debate with approval ratings above 15 percent — they in fact set the precedent that would become the 15 percent threshold.

It is also important to note that while the CPD may comprise solely Democratic and Republican members, it is because these are the majority parties. They have more people. Despite what Wikipedia may say, the CPD is not “controlled” by either party (or by both parties collaborating to influence this organization). According to the CPD website, the CPD “receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate.” While members may be aligned to a major party, the CPD is truly nonpartisan and unbiased, contrary to the author’s accusation.

At the beginning of the letter, the author makes a pointed jab at the debating candidates: He has grown tired of “being lied to.” This blanket statement grossly mischaracterizes one of the candidates. While one of the debaters Monday night is the most dishonest politician running for office, the other is the second most honest political candidate seeking office. These ratings come from Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-checking database. The author’s decision to call the debate a “quasi-celebration of […] hate-filled propaganda” is inaccurate. Yes, one candidate did make predominantly hateful, and false statements, but the other patiently waited to speak in turn, offering accurate and poised responses to the questions.

Another observation: Jill Stein — who is Constitutionally eligible and on enough state ballots to win the election — is not brought up once in the author’s article. Stein, who has the same CPD qualifications as Johnson, was also barred from debating. I do not see the author getting upset about this. If the author were supportive of the democracy he claims to champion, he would not have focused solely on Gary Johnson. I cannot help but feel that his bias towards Johnson (stated in his conclusion) influenced his feelings towards Monday’s debate and the CPD.

In an election, there will be winners and there will be losers. That is the nature of the beast. No two candidates are the same. Some will be privy to benefits denied to others because of their performance. This is not because of a rigged system. It is due to a candidate’s inadequacy. Gary Johnson has known since the beginning of his campaign he needed to poll above 15 percent to debate—at the very least he should have known. He did not accomplish that. If a candidate cannot perform to expected standards, then he or she cannot partake of the benefits. It is as simple as that.


Liam Maher


Sept. 28

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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