The first presidential debate takes place between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney Wednesday night in Denver, but one candidate will be missing from the stage. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is not being allowed to participate in the debate by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit organization that runs the events.
The commission, a registered 501(c)(3), restricts access to the debates to candidates who meet certain criteria. It says it uses "nonpartisan, objective criteria" to determine which candidates can participate in the debates: evidence of constitutional eligibility, meaning a candidate meets all of the constitutional requirements to be president; evidence of ballot access, meaning the candidate's name will appear on the ballot in enough states to give the candidate the mathematical ability to secure a majority in the Electoral College; and indicators of electoral support, meaning the candidate must have the support of at least 15 percent of the electorate.
Johnson fails to meet the 15 percent requirement in polls conducted by the five polling organizations chosen by the commission, but filed a lawsuit against the organization for unfairly blocking him from participating in the debates. The former governor of New Mexico said the Democratic and Republican Parties are deliberately locking him and the Libertarian Party out of the debates.
"Someone has to stand up and call this what it is—a rigged system designed entirely to protect and perpetuate the two-party duopoly," said Johnson spokesman Ron Nielson. "That someone will be the Johnson campaign."
In protest of Johnson's exclusion, Philips Electronics and the YWCA have both pulled their sponsorship from the debates. Both were inundated with E-mails and letters from Johnson supporters complaining that the Libertarian isn't being allowed to participate.
"I've been trying this since 2004 ... and this is first time any sponsor has peeled off from supporting the commission," says Executive Director George Farah of Open Debates, an election watchdog group. "For this to happen on the eve of the first presidential debate is a remarkable act."
Third-party candidates have only before appeared in presidential debates twice. John Anderson participated as an independent candidate in the 1980 election against incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, although the three candidates never appeared in a debate at one time. The only other time a third-party candidate who was allowed to participate (and the only instance when the debates were under the control of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which started running debates in 1988) was in 1992 when Ross Perot appeared with President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
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