Since last May the Obama and Romney campaigns have intransigently refused to release their “Memorandum of Understanding” governing the 2012 presidential debates.  The Commission on Presidential Debates—the corporate-sponsored organization brokering the legally binding contractual agreement—has also remained silent. I can only assume that the candidates were a bit chagrined last week to learn that Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin obtained a copy of the closely guarded document dictating the rules and procedures for this season’s four debates.

Among other principles, “Rule 7, Subsection (f)” dictates that the October 16th town hall debate “will take place before a live participating audience of persons who shall be seated and who describe themselves as likely voters. These participants will be selected by the Gallup Organization (“Gallup”), using a methodology approved in writing by the campaigns. Gallup shall have responsibility for selecting the nationally demographically representative group of voters…” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/15/presidential-debate-memo-released_n_1968323.html

Yet even a cursory glance of the “town hall’s” audience reveals a disquieting truth. The crowd was almost entirely white. Although racial designations are always imprecise, elusive, and subject to contestation and revision, live footage suggests that out of 82 total participants, 65 were white, 5 were black, 5 were Latin@, 4 were Asian, and 3 were racially ambiguous. Zero appeared to be Native American. Not only did Gallup fail to meet its most basic legal obligation of composing a “nationally demographically representative group of voters,” but more troublingly, the organization single-handedly distorted the racial composition of the American electorate in front of 60+ million viewers.  Misrepresentations like these insidiously reinforce the notion that only racially privileged bodies (read: white) are worthy of democratic participation and capable of self-governance. The field of racial representation is one arena in which struggles over the very meaning of democracy are waged. My sense is that if we’re truly committed to producing and maintaining a healthy representative democracy then we must prioritize proportional and honest racial representations in media.

The following table of “U.S. Census racial designations” indicates that the racial composition of last night’s debate neither approximates U.S. population demographics writ large nor those of New York, the state in which the town hall was held. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

 

UNITED STATES

“White persons not Hispanic” 63.4%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 16.7%

“Black persons” 13.1%

“Asians persons” 5.0%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons” 1.2%

 

NEW YORK

“White persons not Hispanic” 58.0%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 18.0%

“Black persons” 17.5%

“Asians persons” 7.8%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons” 1.0%

 

AUDIENCE OF TOWN HALL DEBATE

“White persons not Hispanic” 82.2%

“Persons of Hispanic or Latino Origin” 6.3%

“Black persons” 6.3%

“Asians persons” 5.1%

“American Indian and Alaska Native persons”0%

 

Whereas white individuals were overrepresented by about 30 percent, people of color (according to this methodology) were aggregately underrepresented by about 50 percent. This is unacceptable.

Misrepresenting national demographic trends—particularly racial proportionality—in front of 60+ million viewers is shameful and yet again demonstrates that the creation of a racially egalitarian, open, accessible, and accountable democracy is incompatible with private companies making decisions in the interest of the public good.