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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Court kicks third parties to the curb

Trump or Clinton. Clinton or Trump.

Our country’s two-party dichotomy dominates the presidential race and leaves little alternative for many Americans who view this year’s election as a choice between evils. With two dramatically flawed candidates securing the nominations of the Republican and Democratic parties, a morose pall cloaks the election. The very structure of our country’s electoral system binds us to one of two outcomes, each opposed by a majority of Americans.

It also might be the year for third-party candidates to break through. Most politicos and news junkies know that earlier this year the Libertarian Party nominated Gary Johnson for president and the Green Party chose Jill Stein as its standard-bearer. Johnson is on the ballot in all 50 states, while Stein will be on most.

The problem is most of America doesn’t know.

Unlike the two media-saturated major party conventions that just ended, the conventions for Johnson and Stein barely registered any coverage. Maybe a blurb on page 12 of the news section. Maybe.

And in the months leading up to November, that is unlikely to change.

Johnson and Stein fight long odds to be included on the presidential debate stage this fall. Under the rules promulgated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, neither is likely to cross the threshold polling numbers necessary for an invite, although Johnson’s campaign maintains he’s got a chance. Because they probably won’t be on the debate stage, their poll numbers aren’t likely to increase substantially.

Both the chicken and the egg would recognize this scenario.

The candidates, their campaigns and Johnson and Stein’s respective parties sought refuge from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Because both party’s nominees suffered the same fate four years ago, they hoped to break “the electoral politics market of the two major political parties [who exercise] duopoly control over presidential and vice presidential debates in general election campaigns for the presidency.”

The primary point of contention is the 15-percent national polling threshold any candidate must meet in order to qualify for a place on the debate stage. Set at a level generally beyond the reach of candidates from resource-poor third parties, the threshold is completely arbitrary. What’s more, basing the decision on support from the national electorate doesn’t align at all with a system that allocates electoral votes on a state-by-state basis.

Regardless, the district court promptly shot both Johnson and Stein down. The court found neither had standing because they could not allege “a non-speculative injury traceable to the Commission.” Technically, the court is probably right.

In fact, however, the primary injury is almost certainly to the American people. Rather than putting additional voices and ideas on primetime and injecting differing ideas and policy positions, we are stuck with two candidates relentlessly engaging in personal attacks. Because the debates become an “either-or” argument, the debate is no longer about winning with the best policy ideas but ensuring that the other candidate loses. Recently one of the major party candidates referred to the other as “totally unhinged” — and unless you saw the speech or subsequent news conference, it would be impossible to tell which candidates said it.

Rather than an issue-focused contest, we seem doomed to watch a game of “I know you are, but what am I?” play out on a national level.

Absent court action, the Commission on Presidential Debates won’t change its position anytime soon. As someone who knows Gary Johnson — I served as his original election law attorney four years ago — and plans to vote for him, that’s a shame. I’m sure Stein supporters feel the same. They have some important things to say. Unfortunately, now most people will never hear it.

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