03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Austin Debate's Doors Essentially Closed To Texas Dems

Everything is bigger in Texas--except the number of tickets available for the Democratic debate on Thursday.

Texans have been surprised and thrilled to find themselves on the verge of a primary where their votes will actually make a difference. When the announcement was made that a debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would take place on February 21st at the University of Texas, Austin, the excitement reached fever pitch; the debate immediately became the highlight of the political season.

There was just one problem--the debate isn't open to the general public. Admission will be through invitation only, and CNN, one of the broadcasters of the debate along with Univision, controls the invitation distribution. Each campaign got an equal numbers of tickets. The Texas Democratic Party received one hundred, and a group of tickets was set aside for UT students.

The debate will be held at the university's Recreational Sports Center. The number of seats depends on how CNN configures the venue; as of Tuesday, Robin Gerrow, Assistant Vice President in the University's Office of Public Affairs, thought that it looked like there might be about 1500 seats available.

Once word came down about the small number of tickets available, The Austin American-Statesmen politics blog was immediately hit with commenters asking for information about how to get tickets. Several glumly compared the situation to the mad scramble for Hannah Montana tickets.

On the Austin craigslist, debate ticket seekers posted offers ranging from $100-$1000. One of the ticket hopefuls, Gary Burfoot, a retired attorney from Connecticut who spends his winters in Austin explained, "I'm a lifelong political junkie and I can't get enough of it. The debate would be a much bigger thrill for me than attending the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, or whatever big event you could think of."

The odds weren't in his favor--or anyone's, really. Within a half hour of opening up online entry for a lottery to give away their one hundred tickets, 10,000 people submitted their names to the Texas Democratic Party website. People who wanted to enter the lottery had to be registered to vote in Texas; nevertheless, the office received calls from people who lived outside the state who wanted to know how they could register to vote in Texas so they could enter the ticket lottery (they were told they couldn't). On Monday, a half hour before the lottery closed, a volunteer in the TDP office said that at last count, 41,000 people had submitted their names. The final number of submissions was 43,436.

The odds were slightly better for students at UT. Soncia Reagins-Lilly, Sr. Associate Vice President/Dean of Students, explained that there were 400 tickets for students, and 18,000 had entered the lottery. However, no students should plan to profit from the event, either; students selected from the lottery will receive an email confirmation that they will have to bring to the debate, and personal ID to prove they are one of the students on the invited list (sorry, Mr. Burfoot!).

With so much interest in the debate, some had wondered why the event wasn't moved to a larger venue, such as the 17,000 seat Ervin Center, also on the UT campus. CNN explained that a bigger space would have created audio problems.

This still didn't satisfy everyone. On the Statesman politics blog, people grumbled about party insiders and "fat cats" getting the tickets, while the general public is left out. One commenter wrote,"Let's see here. Big event. The little people aren't invited. Only those in the know or with a lot of money can come. Sounds like the new 'upscale and exclusive' Austin to me!" Someone else, though, noted, "Every presidential debate works like this. That there are public tickets available at all is highly unusual; they almost always only go to party bigwigs and their friends. It's not as though there won't be Clinton and Obama rallies in Austin before this is over. You'll get to see them both, and you wouldn't be able to see them for the tv cameras anyway. Stop bitching."

From that point of view, 500 tickets to the public (the TDP 100 plus the UT student 400) out of 1500, is actually pretty good. If anyone has any reason to gripe, it might be the UT students; the website for the Recreation Sports Center at UT notes that "Funding for the construction and the annual operation of the facility is derived 100 percent from student fees." Perhaps the students should have gotten more, if not all, of the tickets.

For those who didn't win the debate lottery, there will no doubt be debate watching parties all over Austin (the TDP is sponsoring one...with a $50 admission price), and a good time is more likely had at those than at the highly structured made for TV event. And whatever sparks may fly that night on the stage between the two debaters, for Texans, the real fire is not to be found in that room, but in the voters' excitement that for once, they really count.