The criteria for inclusion in the 2000 presidential debates, announced Jan. 6 by the Commission on Presidential Debates, are a welcome step toward objective standards. Unfortunately, those standards are still so unfair that a Jesse Ventura-style candidate would be wrongly excluded.
National debates play such a crucial role in presidential politics that the debate commission has an obligation to be open and inclusive. But the commission has failed to meet that obligation. Its new criteria will unfairly exclude candidates with a serious chance to win the presidency - or with the potential to win the support of a substantial number of American voters. That's just wrong.
For example, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura of the Reform Party was at 10 percent in a statewide poll in late September 1998 before being invited to participate in five debates in October. Mr. Ventura went on to win the gubernatorial election with 37 percent of the vote.
Yes, that was a gubernatorial election - but the same scenario could unfold in the presidential election. It could, except the commission has decreed that only candidates who score at least 15 percent in public-opinion polls will be allowed into the debates.
As the election of Ventura demonstrated, debates can change the outcome of an election. That's why the debates commission should offer voters a broad spectrum of legitimate candidates - instead of acting as kingmaker among a handful of establishment candidates. Everyone benefits when voters are exposed to more choices in a presidential debate.
The best evidence of that was Ross Perot in 1992. The Texas billionaire (running as an independent) was polling at just 7 percent in October when he was invited to participate in the presidential debates. Perot ended up winning 19 percent of the vote - and, more importantly, helped boost voter turnout by 12 million from the previous election.
More candidates in the presidential debate mean more ideas, more excitement, and more voter involvement. The lesson is clear: If we want voters to start tuning back into the political process, we have to open up the system - and the debates - to a wider array of legitimate candidates. The future of American democracy demands it. Regretfully, the commission appears to want to keep the system closed.
Its three-part test for including candidates in the 2000 presidential debates says they should:
*Be eligible to run under the US Constitution.
*Be qualified to be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority.
*Show in five "selected" US polls that they have the support of 15 percent of the public.
These criteria are more objective than the commission's previous standards, which relied partly on the "opinions" of journalists, campaign managers, and political scientists. But as Ventura's victory shows, the criteria still could shut the door on the next president of the United States.
Instead of the restrictive 15 percent threshold, the debates commission should set a more inclusive standard of no more than 5 percent. Such a criteria would have included John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 - and, hopefully, other third-party candidates in 2000.
A standard that was even lower than 5 percent, however, still would not create the kind of crowded free-for-all presidential debates that many people fear - and certainly wouldn't allow 100 candidates on stage, as the debates commission suggested in an attempt to justify its restrictive standards.
The fact is that if every candidate on enough state ballots to theoretically win the presidency in 1996 had been invited, only six candidates would have qualified - fewer than appear in many presidential-primary debates.
Interestingly, the commission charged with deciding whether anyone other than the usual Democrats and Republicans will be allowed into the debates is made up entirely of (you guessed it) Democrats and Republicans. Its co-chairmen are Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the former heads of the Democratic and Republican national committees.
The commission claims it wants to limit the debates to candidates who could garner "majority" support, but even the Democrats and Republicans combined don't have that. As nationally syndicated talk-radio host Lowell Ponte has pointed out, in 1996, a low-turnout year, only 42 percent of eligible voters cast their votes for the Democrat and Republican candidates - far short of a majority. So why should two political parties who together can't muster majority approval be the ones deciding who the entire country will get to see in the debates?
They shouldn't be, which is why the selection process should be opened immediately. The new criteria are a tiny step in the right direction. Now, we encourage the commission to take another big step and make the 2000 presidential debates truly fair, inclusive, and representative of the wide spectrum of American political beliefs.
* David Bergland is national chairman of the Libertarian Party.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society