Media, political parties use polls to rig debates

Published 10:10 am Thursday, October 6, 2016

We are now in the dog days of presidential debate season, with a couple debates under our belts and a couple more to go. But all of these debates have focused and will focus exclusively on two tickets — the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Who gets to participate in national debates is decided right now largely by polling numbers — only those who break a certain threshold of support in polling data are allowed to participate. It’s an unfair and rigged system designed to perpetuate a two-party system and squash all non-Blue and non-Red voices.

To start, polls have been shown over and over again to be biased, flawed and highly unreliable. All the proof you need is Donald Trump, who was laughed at by nearly every serious political reporter early in the campaign because polls said it was impossible for him to win the Republican nomination. A similar polling flaw was revealed by Bernie Sanders, who was also initially considered a joke candidate.

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Beyond that, polls have an insidious way of influencing people in a very undemocratic way. Whether they should or not, people believe polls. And then, people choose who they support based on those polls.

Humans are very good at band-wagoning. We tend to naturally glom on to whoever is in the lead. We feel good if our “team” is winning, so we choose the team that seems to be winning.

If the media merely reported on all the presidential candidates and didn’t bother to try to say who was “in the lead,” it’s very possible many would have liked what they heard from third-party candidates. Instead, alternative candidates are only ever presented as comedy side-shows, so they never even have a chance to gain traction.

But even if polls were reliable and didn’t have undue influence, there’s still no good reason to use them to decide who participates in our democratic process. In the case of presidential elections, we already have a much better measuring stick to use in determining who should participate in national elections: ballot access.

Many people do not realize this, but those who run for president of the nation still have to get on each individual state’s ballot. Each state has a different system for this — there is no way to just register at the national level as a presidential candidate.

The current rules for who gets to participate in a presidential debate already require candidates to have enough ballot access to have a mathematical chance of winning. But they also require 15 percent support in polls — those same polls that have been getting things wrong and skewing public support afterward for months and months.

We should eliminate the polling requirement and just base our debates on ballot access.

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. So even though everyone is being told their only choices are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, literally 100 percent of U.S. voters also have a third choice.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein is on the ballot in 44 states and Washington, D.C., and voters can write her in on ballots in Indiana, North Carolina and Georgia. Only voters in Nevada, South Dakota and Oklahoma won’t have Stein as a choice.

If the debates featured every candidate whom everyone could vote for, there would be three podiums on the stage. If it featured every candidate whom 90 percent of voters could choose, there would be four.

Instead, the current system allows the national media and their polls to first tell voters who the “important” candidates are, and then to limit access for all but their preordained competitors.

There was a lot of rage going around in the Democratic and Republican parties this summer over the idea of party leadership pushing for candidates other than those whom voters were choosing. The American people seem to hate the idea that an elite group would choose their candidates, but there’s not nearly as much anger over the fact that’s already happening.

This is not to say that Johnson or Stein would make a good president. But as long as third-party candidates are being sent to the back of the bus, a good one will never have the chance to shine and we’ll always be stuck with the lesser of two evils.