Free the Debates!

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What do Arianna Huffington, the founders of Craigslist and Wikipedia, Kos, the big wigs of MoveOn.org, the co-founder of RedState.org, and a number of internet pioneers all have in common? They are all part of something call the Open Debate Coalition, a group of folks left, right, and center who want to see the presidential debates and the commission that organizes them fundamentally reformed.

The Open Debate Coalition has three primary objectives: (1) Make raw footage of the debates part of the public domain, so that journalists, bloggers, and citizens can access it without concerns about a major network slamming them with a copyright suit. (2) Allow citizens to vote for questions in advance using the internet, so that town halls aren’t conducted at the whim of a moderator. And (3) reform or replace the Commission on Presidential Debates, a group which declines to make information on its funders public and has not released the debate rules to which both presidential campaigns have reportedly agreed.

This is not a commission that holds itself to iron-clad ethics rules. Anheuser-Busch has sponsored the presidential debates in every cycle since 1996 — as a result, its hometown, St. Louis, has hosted at least one debate in all but one of the last five presidential elections. Reports the Center for Public Integrity, “For its $550,000 contribution in 2000, the beer company was permitted to distribute pamphlets against taxes on beer at the event.”

While seeking sunlight is never easy, the Open Debate Coalition would be excused for thinking they have an ace up their sleeve: the support of presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain. Both candidates have written letters (here’s Obama’s; here’s McCain’s) expressing support for the coalition’s ideals.

So far, no luck. But the members of the coalition aren’t giving up — they see a future where debates bear no resemblance to the ones we have today, which, should anyone need reminding, are essentially identical to the ones held between presidential candidates 25 years ago. “2008 will likely be the last year that the Commission on Presidential Debates will exist as we know it,” Adam Green, Director of Strategic Campaigns for MoveOn.org Political Action, told me. “In the future, voters will demand interactions with the candidates that are democratic, transparent, and accountable to the public.”

Or, as Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, told the Washington Post: “Hopefully, comparing the 2012 debates to those of 2008 will be like comparing a 5th generation iPhone to a bullhorn.”

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