- - Thursday, August 13, 2020

With less than 100 days until the general election, the first presidential debate is just weeks away. The televised argument will unfold against a backdrop of contentious social strife and some of the worst polarization in American political history. But despite many Americans’ desire for options outside the two major parties, there will likely only be two podiums on the debate stage.

For an America that is becoming increasingly politically fractured, that’s not good enough anymore.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is an ostensibly nonpartisan nonprofit organization that “has sponsored all general election Pres & VP debates since 1988.” Their primary purpose is “to sponsor and produce the quadrennial general election debates.” In other words, they set the rules for who can debate on the world’s biggest election stage.

Among the most controversial rules on their books is one that only allows candidates who are polling at 15% or higher to be included in the debates. However, the commission routinely uses polls to measure eligibility that do not include more than the Republican and Democrat candidates. That means third-party candidates aren’t even given a chance to meet the 15% threshold.

Right now, the commissionis at a crossroads. It could widen eligibility and improve American political vitriol with one quick rule change: Allowing only polls that include all presidential candidates with ballot access to be considered in determining debate eligibility; or it could continue to give Republicans and Democrats special treatment. If they choose the latter, they should lose their “nonpartisan nonprofit” designation and the benefits therein.



This isn’t just about holding the Commission on Presidential Debates accountable — it’s about ensuring that our republic is representative of the people. Demanding polls that include every viable option would ensure that candidates with vast support across America, who have already been able to secure ballot access in all 50 states, get to speak to the vast majority of voters who only tune into politics for these major debates.

Not all parties and candidates should automatically make the stage, but those who have established the massive support necessary to be on the ballot with a mathematical shot at winning should be given a fair shake to meet that 15% standard.

As recently as June of this year, courts have sided with the commission’s exclusionary and biased rules. Federal Judge Raymond Randolph, a former Hill attorney appointed in 2008, stated in the ruling that “there is no legal requirement that the commission make it easier for independent candidates to run for president of the United States.” There is, however, a moral requirement and perhaps a requirement based on their IRS nonpartisan nonprofit designation. Nonpartisan? The Commission on Presidential Debates is clearly bipartisan, and needs to be checked.

Pretending that a two-party system is the best way to govern a nation as diverse and changing as the United States isn’t just disingenuous. Ignoring that diversity actively harms Americans. Debate exposure matters. Before the 1992 presidential debates, Ross Perot was polling at 8%. He was on the debate stage and finished with 19% of the popular vote. Jesse Ventura was polling at 10% before the Minnesota gubernatorial debates, but a strong debate performance led to him winning the election.

So why hasn’t the Commission on Presidential Debates already made this rule change? To quote the late great George Carlin, “It’s a big club and you ain’t in it.” The CPD was formed in 1987 by a group of politicians who were, unsurprisingly, Democrats and Republicans. The organization has since served to lock out opposing viewpoints, even as the two major parties become more and more similar. 

The Commission on Presidential Debates has an opportunity to do the right thing and open the playing field, or at the very least, play fair. If they instead continue this bipartisan chicanery, courts must intervene to content the commission’s monopoly on the debates. A loss of faith in elections will erode the foundation of this republic. 

It has been more than 10 years since either major party was viewed favorably by the majority of Americans, and that speaks to something deeper. The ebb and flow of political power between many parties is part of American history. Dominance by these two parties is a relatively new phenomenon. We are faced with this dilemma because both Republicans and Democrats have worked to make sure options are limited. The commission enables two-party rule, what the League of Women Voters notably called “the hoodwinking of the American public.”

This isn’t an issue about right or left; parties from all across the political spectrum deserve a shot to make their case to the American people. How many more election cycles are we expected to pretend two terrible, party-selected candidates are the best leaders available? The Commission on Presidential Debates needs to stop playing political games. Either open up the debate stage, use polls that actually include all candidates who will appear on the ballot or give up your “nonprofit nonpartisan” charade. 

• Conner Drigotas is the director of communications and development at a national law firm and is a Young Voices contributor. He writes at www.ConnerDrigotas.com.

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