Every four years, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) puts on a series of campaign commercials disguised as presidential and vice-presidential debates.
The CPD is, in theory, a not-for-profit organization "established in 1987 to ensure that debates, as a permanent part of every general election, provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners."
But the CPD is really just a scam the Republican and Democratic parties use to funnel illegally large "in kind" campaign donations, in the form of tens of millions of dollars' worth of free media exposure, exclusively to their own candidates.
A real nonpartisan, not-for-profit debate organization would use objective criteria for deciding which candidates may participate in debates. The CPD continuously refines its criteria with an eye toward ensuring that no third party or independent candidates qualifies for a microphone at a CPD "debate."
Billionaire independent/Reform Party candidate Ross Perot managed to jump through their hoops in 1992, afterward polling 19 percent in the general election. The CPD excluded him in 1996, cutting his vote percentage down to 8 percent. Since then, the CPD has successfully excluded additional candidates from their Democrat/Republican campaign infomercials.
Libertarians aren't fans of laws limiting the people's ability to give their money - as much of it as they want - to the candidates they support. But if there are going to be such rules, they should apply across the board.
That's why the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, both parties' 2012 presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and 2012 Justice Party presidential nominee Rocky Anderson are suing the CPD. The Our America Initiative, headed up by 2012 Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson, is coordinating the legal challenge.
The relief the plaintiffs seek is simple: If the CPD is going to pretend to be a not-for-profit, nonpartisan debate organization, it should be required to start acting like one. Instead of giving the Republicans and Democrats a free series of campaign infomercials, the CPD must put on real debates, open to all candidates who are legally qualified for the office they seek and whose names appear on enough state ballots for them to hypothetically win the election.
Would victory in this suit make a real difference for third-party and independent candidates? Absolutely. Exposure in the debates might or might not put Libertarians or Greens over the top, but it would at least expose the American public to the real panoply of choices instead of to one pre-selected pair.
Thomas L. Knapp is director of and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (TheGarrisonCenter.org), where this article originally appeared.