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ANALYSIS

Debates on cable, not free TV — a new poll tax?

Ten presidential candidates took the stage for the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland earlier this month.John Minchillo/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A large share of the presidential primary season debates will not be aired on free over-the-air broadcast networks. Of the 15 primary season debates, all but five will air on cable TV.

That pattern has led Susan Crawford, a Harvard University law professor, to question whether there is something terribly wrong here. Crawford published a piece last week in Medium about the cable subscription fees necessary for interested voters to watch the debates in real time.

She said it amounts to nothing short of a poll tax.

That’s a big, bad claim in a country in which poll taxes were deployed uniformly to keep black and Latino voters away from the polls in the Deep South and Southwest in the decades before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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And with opponents of voter ID laws describing fees associated with obtaining identification needed to vote as the most recent vintage from this same political vine, any implication that people must pay to participate in the American democratic process draws attention.

Still, in many ways the comparison is overwrought.

Cable subscription fees and the programming available represent but one route or method by which Americans can learn about the candidates, their policy ideas, their temperaments, and their talents. Americans can still read about the candidates, listen to them on the radio and, when the cable networks make it possible, stream the debates live or in the hours and days after the event actually takes place. Learning about the candidates might be an important part of participating in American democracy, but it’s the actual voting that decides who holds elected office, whose political needs and interests become policy, and whose are ignored.

Poll taxes weren’t a matter of inconvenience — some hurdle that people could clear by other means. They were an instrument of oppression, total and illegal domination of one group over others. Poll taxes quite literally impeded the ability of millions of Americans to engage in the core act of citizenship in a democracy. For some Americans, voting itself was subject to a tax.

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Crawford makes some solid points about cord-cutting and the ostensibly growing share of the public that does not have cable TV. The primary process might have brought us candidates not constitutionally qualified to serve as president (like Deez Nuts).

But just one GOP debate in, the significance of debates is pretty clear.

As one analyst said before the debate, no matter how much show happens on that stage, debates are a major part of American political culture. They rank among the ways that ordinary Americans who have never been anywhere near a debate stage evaluate intellectual chops and who should even be considered for important leadership roles. That’s why there’s often a debate for 6th grade treasurer and multiple debates when you run for president.

Debates matter, and so too does access to them.

Those who got to watch the debate in real time could see quickly and clearly which candidates wilted under or seemed to manage the pressure well. They could make their own early evaluations before the punditry really began.

Those who didn’t have cable subscriptions (or the log-ins made available to cable subscribers so that they can watch cable programming online) had to wait for Fox to post the full video. And with the primary debates arranged between the interested parties — the Democrats, the Republicans, and each of the networks — it’s unlikely that anybody can make CNN or CNBC do things differently. It’s totally up to them.

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There’s no question that this puts some Americans at a distinct political disadvantage.

But Crawford, the law professor, focuses much of her attention of those who have opted not to subscribe to cable on frugal principle or some sort of inherent antiestablishment, mistrustful instinct that runs strong among Millennials. Those who can not afford cable are not a big part of Crawford’s equation.

But perhaps they should be. Cable costs are climbing at a rate that far outpaces other things. The average monthly price of expanded basic service (the most common package) excluding taxes and fees, increased by 5.1 percent in 2013, to $64.41, according to a May 2014 Federal Communications Commission analysis.

By comparison, the other goods that make up the Consumer Price Index grew an average of just 1.6 percent.

Still, a quick look at a long-running Gallup survey of technology use in the United States shows that in 2005, about 68 percent of American households had cable. In 2013, the same year that that FCC report found cable rates jumped an average of 5.1. percent, that figure remained unchanged.

That’s not to say that no one is cutting the cord. In 2013, it just hadn’t outpaced the share who still subscribed or started doing so. And all of this probably brings us to the real reason that so many of the primary debates will appear on subscription cable networks this year.

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Cable networks — particularly news networks wrestling with ratings free falls — would very much like for people to regard their network as a near-essential, or at least something for the concerned and informed.