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Press release/statement

Eighteen Pro-Democracy Groups Call On Presidential Debate Commission To Make Secret Contract Public

WASHINGTON, -- Eighteen pro-democracy groups - Open Debates, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Rock the Vote, Judicial Watch, Public Campaign, FairVote, Demos, Democracy Matters, League of Rural Voters, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, Essential Information, Personal Democracy Media, Reclaim Democracy!, Center for Study of Responsive Law, Citizen Works, Free & Equal Elections Foundation, and Rootstrikers - call on the Commission on Presidential Debates to make public the secret debate contract that was negotiated by the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Robert F. Bauer of the Obama campaign and Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the Romney campaign negotiated a detailed contract that dictates many of the terms of the 2012 presidential debates, including how the format will be structured. The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties, agreed to implement the debate contract. In order to shield the major party candidates from criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates is concealing the contract from the public and the press.

 The presidential debates are structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-averse candidates, not voters.

"The Commission on Presidential Debates undermines our democracy," said George Farah, Executive Director of Open Debates. "Because of the Commission's subservience to the Republican and Democratic campaigns, the presidential debates are structured to accommodate the wishes of risk-averse candidates, not voters."

"It is vital that voters have access to the rules that govern the influential presidential debates in order to hold the candidates accountable for them and advocate for debate reforms that would strengthen our democracy," said Bob Edgar, President of Common Cause.

Previous debate contracts negotiated by the major party campaigns have contained anti-democratic provisions that sanitize debate formats, exclude viable third-party candidates and prohibit additional debates from being held. For example, the 2004 debate contract negotiated by the Kerry and Bush campaigns contained the following provisions:

  • "The parties agree that they will not (1) issue any challenges for additional debates, (2) appear at any other debate or adversarial forum with any other presidential or vice presidential candidate, or (3) accept any television or radio air time offers that involve a debate format or otherwise involve the simultaneous appearance of more than one candidate."
  • For all four debates: "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions."
  • For the town-hall debate: "Prior to the start of the debate, audience members will be asked to submit their questions in writing to the moderator. ... The moderator shall approve and select all questions to be posed by the audience members to the candidates."
  • For the town-hall debate: "Audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member's microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question."

The first presidential debate contract was negotiated by the Republican and Democratic campaigns in 1988. The League of Voters, which had sponsored previous presidential debates, refused to implement the contract and instead accused the campaigns of "perpetrating a fraud on the American voter." The newly-created Commission on Presidential Debates, meanwhile, readily implemented the 1988 contract and has sponsored every presidential debate since. The Commission now exercises a monopoly over the presidential debates and routinely executes debate contracts drafted by the Republican and Democratic campaigns.

A copy of the debate contract is available at: