Voices & Choices

FairVote goes to court to defend presidential debates

FairVote goes to court to defend presidential debates

People do not neatly fit into two political boxes. Yet our general election presidential debates have involved only two voices for decades: one Republican, one Democrat. This is no accident - the rules set by the Commission on Presidential Debates are intended to limit debate participation.

In April of 2016, FairVote joined a federal lawsuit arguing that the Federal Election Commission has a responsibility to intervene and stop partisan manipulation of the presidential debates. The case, still ongoing after four years, was brought by Level the Playing Field, Peter Ackerman, and the Green and Libertarian Parties. The continued work of the plaintiffs on this effort speaks to their patience and tenacity in promoting a healthier democracy in the face of institutional resistance.

Most recently, the plaintiffs appealed their case to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. FairVote submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs-appellants arguing (as we did in the district court below) that polling data is not reliable enough, on its own, to be the exclusive means of determining which candidates are serious enough to be included in debates. In fact, the Commission on Presidential Debates is the only body, so far as we can identify, that uses such a high polling threshold to determine inclusion in debates. The international norm is to include polling as a criterion (usually with a 5% threshold, rather than the 15% threshold used by the CPD) while also taking into consideration other measures of viability. As a result, there is a less ossified two-party system in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, as a small political party may occasionally rise to prominence by bringing a mainstream message ignored by the major parties in the public debates.

In this amicus brief, we were joined by the Coalition for Free and Open Elections (COFOE). COFOE is an umbrella organization composed of representatives from other organizations promoting the idea that we should have more than two choices in our general elections. COFOE regularly participates in lawsuits to open our democracy to more choices. In fact, it recently submitted an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court asking the Court to consider whether ballot access lawsuits can go forward after the election has ended. 

FairVote and COFOE submitted one of three amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs-appellants. The other two were filed by the Independent Voter Project arguing that the exclusion of alternative voices from the presidential debates exacerbates divisions in American politics, and by a group of nonprofit leaders, scholars, and practitioners arguing that the partisan activities of CPD’s leadership creates an illegal conflict of interest.

Read the amicus brief for FairVote and COFOE below:


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