Third Party Groups Complain About Exclusion From Debates

Former third-party presidential candidates who were excluded from debates in 2000 asked election officials Tuesday to block the Commission on Presidential Debates (search) from sponsoring next year's forums.

The complaint to the Federal Election Commission (search) said the debate commission is a partisan organization that lets only Democratic and Republican candidates participate in the debates it organizes. The complaint also said election law requires that an organization staging such debates be nonprofit and nonpartisan.

"The CPD decided to exclude all third-party candidates from even sitting in the audience of the debates, and it distributed a 'face-book' of prominent third-party candidates to CPD personnel at the first presidential debate so they could recognize and deny the candidates access to the debate hall even if they had a ticket," the complaint said.

It asks the FEC to order the debate commission to return millions of dollars it raised from corporations and others to stage the 2000 debates, calling the money an illegal corporate contribution to the major parties.

Janet Brown, executive director of the debate commission, said the complaint rehashes the same "baseless claims" that independent candidates raised unsuccessfully before the last round of presidential debates.

Those filing Tuesday's complaint included consumer advocate Ralph Nader (search), the Green Party's presidential nominee in 2000; John Hagelin and Patrick Buchanan (search), Reform Party candidates; and Howard Phillips, a Constitution Party candidate. In the complaint, Hagelin described himself as a Natural Law Party candidate.

The commission, founded by the Democratic and Republican parties, only allows candidates with at least 15 percent support in national polls to participate in its debates. None of the third-party candidates qualified.

The complaint is the latest in a long-running effort by minor-party candidates to secure a place in nationally televised presidential debates.

Nader settled a lawsuit last year against the debate commission for excluding him from a televised viewing of a presidential debate at an auditorium on the University of Massachusetts campus. The commission and a security consultant each agreed to pay $25,000 to cover legal costs. The commission said at the time that the settlement would have no impact on future debates.