With all the important issues at stake in the presidential and vice presidential debates, it takes a small and pettifogging disposition to be concerned with a matter of fairness. But since John Rawls talks so much about procedural justice, and since no enlightened professor today would dare label John Rawls a pettifogger, I am not embarrassed to raise a procedure question in the conduct of these debates.

There is one scarce resource in these debates which is both measureable and important: time. No wonder that the participants fight over it. Give one of the participants more time, and he gets an unfair procedural advantage.

I had the feeling while watching the three debates so far (I include the Vice-presidential debate) that Romney and Ryan had taken more time than Obama and Biden. But I was surprised in each case, after checking the data, to discover that my impressions were in error. In the first debate, Obama had almost five minutes more time than Romney, Biden (excluding his smiles) had a minute more than Ryan (even subtracting for his H2O intake), and in the debate last night Obama had about three minutes more than Romney. I will let the fact checker dig up the exact figures and then run the percentages, but by any measure it adds up overall to a very considerable advantage for the Democrats. One could even “price” it: how much would someone have to pay for a minute of airtime with an audience of over 50 million viewers?

The facts speak for themselves. So why the initial impression, at least on my part, that the Republicans had taken more time? The reason, I think, is that Mitt Romney had to ask or fight for the time from the moderators. This was a double disadvantage for Romney, who got less time but appeared a bit forward in having to demand it.

The imbalance here is the fault, if anyone, of the moderators—doesn’t the buck stop with them? But contrary to a likely conservative suspicion, I am guessing that it had less to do with any political bias, if there is one, on the part of Jim or Candy, than with the understandable dilemma that it is harder to cut off or interrupt the President of the United States than a challenger. There is that old thing of the aura of the office, and it probably operates unconsciously. (As or Joe Biden, the “aura” dimension admittedly rubs off pretty quickly; but there is no human force I can imagine that could ever stop him from getting his say in, and then some.)

So what to do about this problem? There is a simple solution, and the folks who run the debates ought to adopt it immediately. And with apologies to some of my conservative readers, this solution comes from France, where it was used in their presidential debate. Here it is: You have a digital clock visible to the participants and the audience that gives a running total of the minutes used by each candidate. The candidate who has fallen behind in minutes used can take the time—I will add not by interrupting—to bring himself up to something close to equality. No need to plead with or to fight the moderator. It’s an obvious instance, to which all who operated behind a veil of ignorance would readily consent, of exercising one’s right to justice as fairness. Rawlsians of the world unite!

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