HLS student works to open presidential debates

BY HUGO TORRES

As election season gears up, Harvard Law students are beginning to grow more involved in the presidential campaigns, working to elect their chosen candidate. One student, however, has been working not on electing a specific candidate, but on reforming the system so more candidates can enter the field and compete. George Farah, 2L, is the founder and executive director of Open Debates, a non-profit organization dedicated to wresting control of the presidential debate process away from the major parties to include alternative voices-including those of third parties.

“I was stunned in 1996 when Ross Perot was excluded from the presidential debates, even though he had received $29 million in taxpayers funding and 76 percent of eligible voters wanted to see him included,” said Farah in an interview with the Record. “I later worked for Ralph Nader, and I was naturally disappointed that he and Buchanan were excluded from the 2000 debates. And the more I researched – looking at old debate transcripts, researching debate negotiations, conducting interviews – the more I realized that the presidential debates had been stolen from the American people.” Farah, upset over this, decided it was time to do something-so he started a group to change the system.

Currently, the presidential debates are organized and run by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a bipartisan private corporation that took over responsibility for the debates in the 1980s. Before then, the League of Women Voters ran the debates, preventing the major parties from altering debate formats and including more than two candidates in the debates. Now, the Democrats and Republicans essentially run the CPD and exclude candidates such as Perot, Nader, and Buchanan from participating.

Farah believes this system is broken. “Voters want the presidential debates to consist of popular candidates discussing important issues in an unscripted manner. But, that is not what voters get,” as the debates are firmly structured and third-party candidates are excluded. “[R]ather than watching actual debates, voters are subject to glorified bipartisan news conferences, with the candidates superficially glazing over the issues while reciting a series of memorized sound-bites. Walter Cronkite called the presidential debates an “unconscionable fraud” and accused the major party candidates of “sabotaging the electoral process.”

This, Farah believes, has resulted in lowered interest among the American public. “Americans are getting tired of these pseudo-debates, and they are turning off their television sets. Twenty-five million fewer people watched the 2000 presidential debates than watched the 1992 presidential debates.”

“I found this lack of transparency, exclusion of popular candidates, avoidance of pressing national issues, and manipulation of debate formats unacceptable,” said Farah, which led him to start Open Debates in hopes of reforming the system. Three HLS grads serve on the Open Debates board: Randall Robinson, Jamin Raskin, and John B. Anderson.

Open Debates works through different avenues to achieve its aims. It has formed the Citizens’ Debate Commission, which seeks “to employ fair candidate selection criteria, feature innovative formats, address a broad variety of issues, and operate with full transparency.” It frequently holds press conferences, including one recently that announced the filing of a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against the CPD. Also, it has engagee in a media blitz to get out its message, publishing opinion pieces in papers such as the New York Times, winning editorial board support from the Christian Science Monitor, and giving interviews to print and radio media.

Between running a non-profit and being a law student, Farah finds little in the way of free time. “It’s been a difficult balancing act. I spend about half of my time in Washington. I’m constantly traveling between Washington, New York and Boston, which is exhausting,” says Farah. Still, he considers himself blessed to have these opportunities. “I absolutely love it, and I feel lucky to be able to do so many things I enjoy.”

Looking towards the future, Farah believes opening up the debates is a very real possibility. “[A] successful campaign to displace the CPD must create overwhelming public pressure on the Republican and Democratic nominees to refuse participation in CPD-sponsored debates. Open Debates is creating that the public pressure.” Eventually, that pressure will force the parties to publicly respond to proposals for change. Making the debate a public one will allow citizens to see the system as it stands now-and to see where it can go. “Such increased transparency would alone improve the presidential debates-under public scrutiny, the major party candidates would be less likely to select compliant moderators, to exclude popular third-party challengers, to prohibit candidate-to-candidate dialogue, and to avoid discussing difficult issues.”

“History has shown that it is possible to put voters, rather than political parties, in charge of the debates,” says Farah.

Farah notes that students at HLS can get involved very easily. “We’ve got much, much more planned – from federal legislation, to selecting debate sites for the Citizens’ Debate Commission, to forming local Open Debates chapters around the country,” says Farah. “The work is a constant mixture of drafting legal documents, to authoring opinion pieces, to conducting news interviews, contacting reporters, building coalitions, meeting with advisors, lobbying Congress, etc.” Students who want to take part in this can visit the website, at www.OpenDebates.org, to learn more about how they can get involved.

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