ARE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES FREE AND DEMOCRATIC? AN INSIDER SHARES HER EXPERIENCES IN ELECTORAL REFORM

ARE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES FREE AND DEMOCRATIC? AN INSIDER SHARES HER EXPERIENCES IN ELECTORAL REFORM

Ms. Christina Tobin, the founder and chair of Free and Equal Elections foundation covered a range of topics in an extensive interview with a Serbian journalist and political analyst Jovan Tripkovic.

(You may view Jovan Tripkovic’s blog translated in Serbian HERE).

Here is the extended conversation, which took place last Thursday.

Jovan Tripkovic has removed brief segments where Ms. Tobin went off the record or made personal observations unrelated to the interview.

Jovan Tripkovic: Please be kind and give me a short introduction to your organization. What do you do? How did you start?

Christina Tobin: It really sparked at 17 years of age, when I saw my father, who ran for governor of Illinois as a third party candidate, wrongfully knocked off the ballot. I saw at that young of an age the need for reforming our electoral system throughout the United States, beyond ballot access, but also gerrymandering, voting machines, proportional representation, alternative voting methods, addressing the electoral college, closed Commission on Presidential Debates, and so on.

So for about decade after that, I helped organize and coordinate in collecting millions of signatures to get accountable independent-minded candidates on the ballot, across the political spectrum: Democrats, Republicans, Libertarian, Green Party, and Independent Candidates. In 2008, I became the national ballot coordinator for independent Ralph Nader for President of the United States, and that sparked the creation of The Free and Equal Elections Foundation.

I organized a great team to help collect over half a million signatures and placing him on the ballot in 45 states plus D.C. We didn’t have enough money for all 50 states. The spark for creation of Free and Equal Elections happened October of 2008, when Ralph Nader took me to the DNC, and it was just him and I, and he stood and looked at all of the press and said “Christina I could interview with every single member of the press right now and I wouldn’t reach 3 to 5 percent of what the Commission on Presidential Debates reaches.” Since then I learned that there was a need for truly open presidential debates in America.

So that was the beginning of Free and Equal. We hosted our first presidential debate in ’08 at the Mayflower Hotel, and it has evolved into a variety of projects since then.  

Jovan Tripkovic: Do you think that two parties have the monopoly on presidential debates in America, and since the first televised debate between JFK and Nixon how many times did the third party candidate participate in the mainstream presidential debate?

Christina Tobin: Well to answer the latter part, I recall the last time that a true outsider got into the presidential debate was Ross Perot of Reform Party. The Commission on Presidential Debates, to answer the first part of the question, is controlled by what I would say not a two party system but really a one-party system.  

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is run by former chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, big money… What Ralph Nader taught me and many others back in ’08 is that it is one of the most powerful tools that one party systems use to create the illusion that there are only two parties in the United States, when in fact there are far more, and also I think even more independent candidates will run in the future. The CPD platform that cannot be trusted. Free and Equal Elections is the only entity that has hosted the presidential debates outside the Commission on Presidential Debates, that has been nationally televised in ’08 on C-SPAN2.

Jovan Tripkovic: Why is it so hard for third party and independent candidates to enter and participate in presidential debates? Is it because of the two party monopoly, lack of money, media censorship…

Christina Tobin: It is hard for alternative candidates to get inside the Commission on Presidential Debates because that is one of many platforms that are controlled by the powers that be. You have a two party system, really a one-party system, that is controlled by big money, the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds, the dozens of wealthy families. Not only do they control the party system, but they also control the mainstream media in the United States of America, even Hollywood, the music and gaming industries. Follow the money. The Commission on Presidential Debates is one of many different tools the powers that be uses to help elect candidates who are beholden to their agenda.

We at Free and Equal Elections have a long term solutions-based direction of how we’re going to resolve that issue. Every issue derives, I feel, from having the wrong person in office. When a solution-based idea rises in the United States, nothing will get in its way. I do foresee a true movement. It will be a platform like Free and Equal Elections, an umbrella group that brings many like-minded leaders across the spectrum that may have different viewpoints but they all deserve to be heard. Our slogan says, more voices more choices. I think that the solution in this decade is going to be blockchain voting which will help reform our electoral process and bring about political transparency.

Jovan Tripkovic: What is the percentage that independent candidates need to reach in order to participate in the presidential debate?

Christina Tobin: The Commission on Presidential Debates says candidates must be at 15% or more in public opinion polls during September of the presidential election year.

Jovan Tripkovic: Do you think that percentage is too high?

Christina Tobin: Yes, the 15% debate threshold is far too high. It is unconstitutional and rigged. After all, for Democrats who want to debate in the primary debates hosted by the Democratic Party, the poll requirement is only 1%.

Jovan Tripkovic: In case there is a third party candidate or an independent in the presidential debate, do you think that could potentially harm the two-party system and increase the likelihood for success of third-party candidates?

Christina Tobin: Definitely! I think having more candidates in the presidential debate is always a great thing. Unfortunately, I don’t trust that they would be fair towards outsider candidates on their platform. As a supporter of opening the debates, I don’t feel even our Free And Equal debates are open enough quite yet. I want to keep opening our presidential debates even more as technology evolves. I would love to allow people to vote in the first round of live candidates into our presidential debate, through our blockchain voting system, which will revolutionize our voting system and bring about political transparency.

As we grow, we’ll open up our platform to more candidates. I think everyone who is running should at least have a chance to be heard and that could happen through a blockchain voting application we will be launching in the future.

Jovan Tripkovic: Do you think that they didn’t treat Ross Perot fairly in 1992 during the presidential debate?

Christina Tobin: You could arguably say the same thing about Donald Trump. Both men, Trump and Perot, knew what they were walking into. Do I think they were treated fairly? No, I don’t.

Jovan Tripkovic: Free and Equal Elections organized presidential debates in ’08, ’12, ’16. Was the American public interested to hear what Libertarian, Green and Constitutional party candidates had to say?

Christina Tobin: In 2008 it was televised on C-SPAN2 and moderated by award-winning journalist Chris Hedges. In 2012, I joined as a co-moderator with Larry King and it was broadcast on RT America, C-SPAN, Al Jazeera, and covered by PBS and Jimmy Kimmel. The total amount of households reached doesn’t mean the actual viewership, was 1.1. billion. So one could say it was tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. I don’t know how many people actually watched it, but the calculated reach was 1.1 billion. The people were very interested in hearing different viewpoints.

Jovan Tripkovic: Did you invite candidates from the two major parties?  

Christina Tobin: Yes, for ’08, ’12, ’16. Absolutely!

Jovan Tripkovic: Obviously they didn’t’ show up. What was their explanation for declining to participate in the Open presidential debate? Did they send you an official response?

Christina Tobin: I don’t recall if there was much of a response. But I would guess that supporting the platform that wants to bring about political transparency throughout the United States is not necessarily the goal of the majority. Almost all mainstream two party candidates are controlled by the powers that be. They are in it for the money, the greed. You can tie it to money, oil, gas, the prison system, the pharmaceutical industry… We can go on and on. The candidates attracted to our platform are not beholden to the system which is controlled by the powers that be.

Jovan Tripkovic: Will you organize a presidential debate in 2020?

Christina Tobin: Yes!

Jovan Tripkovic: Do you think that in 2020 America can finally have a good independent presidential campaign? Who do you think would be a viable candidate?

Christina Tobin: The likelihood of an independent running in 2020 is challenging. The reason why is that as of the election of 2016, it takes 800,000 signatures to get on the ballot as an independent in all fifty states plus D.C., which means you need to collect upwards of over 1.6 million signatures. That means if you start the driveway in advance, it’s going to cost you at least 7 to 10 million dollars just to get on the ballot.

If you start the ballot drive last minute, it’s going to be about 20 million dollars. And if you are a threat to the system like Ralph Nader was in ’04, the DNC challenged him in 32 states and were able to successfully knock him off the ballot. Why? Because the judicial system is appointed into the office by the two-party system. It is very challenging to get on the ballot. I think in 2024, it’s going to be more likely. If there were any candidates to run as an independent that I feel have the most integrity right now, they would be Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson.

Jovan Tripkovic: What are the requirements for Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to get on the ballot in all fifty states? How would you compare these requirements to requirements that Green and Libertarian candidates need to fulfill in order to get ballot access in all fifty states?

Christina Tobin: Democratic and Republican presidential candidates need about 25,000 signatures nationwide to be on the presidential primary ballots of all states. A presidential nominee of a new party needs about 800,000 signatures if he or she uses the easier method to get on the ballot in each state.

Jovan Tripkovic: What is the easier method?

Christina Tobin: Every state has two methods to get on the general election ballot, one for independent candidates, and one for new political parties. Some states make one method easier than the other, and vice versa. Tennessee only requires 275 signatures for an independent presidential candidate, but about 45,000 for a new party. That is one extreme example. So any minor party presidential candidate would use the independent method in Tennessee. There is no barrier to a candidate using one method in one state, and the other method in other states.

Jovan Tripkovic: Free and Equal Election Foundations sued UCLA recently. Can you tell me more about that?

Christina Tobin: Free And Equal Elections sued UCLA for damages up to one million for breach of contract due to canceling our first annual United We Stand (UWS) Concert slated at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on May 10th, 2014. The day after UCLA wrongfully canceled our UWS Concert, they publicized in their own paper the following day that I failed to make the payment on time. That was a lie.

The paper interviewed me, and I told them we made the payment on time and UCLA canceled it. The paper didn’t cover my viewpoint. What happened was we had an angel donor that wired ninety thousand dollars on time to UCLA, five days before the event. The initial deadline was noon that day, May 6th. According to the angel donor’s deposition, the morning of May 6th, UCLA’s Associate Director Rich Mylin of Pauly Pavilion called her twice, telling her that he felt I was incapable of putting on the event.

I felt sabotaged. Fortunately, she contacted me instead of just disappearing and said it was odd that he called her, and she told me what he said. Afterward, we had three-way call around 12:30 pm, and he agreed that the show was still on if she wired the money by 5 p.m. end of the business day. She wired ninety thousand dollars approximately twenty minutes after the three-way call, and UCLA received it by 2 p.m. that day. Minutes after the 90K wire was sent, UCLA sent me an email that they canceled the event. I called Rich Mylin, and he told me that the Dean of UCLA Robert Naples booked another event at the same venue, twenty minutes after they canceled United We Stand. 

It was not right what they did. Currently, we are suing them for damages up to one million. We have a court hearing scheduled on June 24th and it will last up to five days. 

Jovan Tripkovic: Why did it take you so long to bring a lawsuit against them?

Christina Tobin: It costs a lot of money. To raise that money, it took some time. Did I want to sue them right away? Absolutely, but I didn’t have that kind of money. 

Jovan Tripkovic: Is this an isolated incident or is it part of a bigger trend of free speech restriction across American universities?

Christina Tobin: Definitely a wider issue! I forgot to mention that the next day after cancelation, Chuck D of Public Enemy was scheduled to come on campus to speak in support of United We Stand. There was a buzz on campus, and we sold thousands of tickets in the previous 24-48 hours through Groupon and over 700 tickets through UCLA’s Ticketmaster.

After recently reading 500 pages of internal emails between UCLA’s Dean Robert Naples and Administration I strongly feel this cancellation was politically motivated. It was clear then and especially after reading these 500 pages of internal email that UCLA did not want Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chuck D / Public Enemy to perform on their campus. Several months prior to the event we had many student groups leaders who offered to support UWS Concert but they started dropping like flies telling us that their advisors told them not to support our event and that their advisors told them UCLA Dean Robert Naples had instructed advisors to tell this to the student leaders. 

Recently, I had a private telephone conversation with Former Congressman Dr. Ron Paul, of which he said that the American university system is the biggest threat. He said the University system breeds its own kind. I don’t feel this is an isolated issue. It is a national issue. I hope that our case generates the national spotlight and helps prevent this from happening to others.

Jovan Tripkovic: Are we witnessing an erosion of free speech and limitation of academic freedoms in the United States?

Christina Tobin: Yes! We put in the press release that UCLA stifles free speech. Free speech is not an issue in the United States, only on the university front. The system is fighting harder than ever in the United States of America, which is one more reason why we need to stand united.

We sponsored our first stop of United We Stand Concert tour on April 27 at the 14th annual Earth week in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The second stop of our United We Stand Concert tour will take place on July 4-6th at Knead Peace in Kilton, Texas in support of our Veterans. See you on the tour!

Thank you to Tyler Nixon for making this interview a reality!

John Braunstein
[email protected]