UPDATE: Level the Playing Field has posted more information, including letters in support of its petition from the Campaign Legal Center and others.
Free and open debate is necessary for a successful democracy. Yet, for the past twenty-two years, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the organization charged with administering the presidential and vice presidential debates, has not permitted a single independent or third party candidate to participate in those debates. Since 2000, the CPD has required candidates to have the support of at least 15 percent of the public in five national polls to participate in the debates. Due to differences in name recognition and media attention, meeting this threshold would require minor party candidates to spend almost ten times as much money as major party candidates. As a result, no independent and third party candidates have been able to participate in the debates since the rule went into effect. Indeed, even Ross Perot’s self-funded candidacy would not have given him the support necessary to meet this rule.
Excluding independent and third party candidates from the debates results in more polarized campaigning and reduces substantive discussion to the major parties’ talking points. On the other hand, including minor party candidates has been shown to broaden debate topics, increase voter education on major issues, and increase voter turnout in the general election. Clearly, giving independent and third party candidates an alternative means of qualifying for inclusion would be hugely beneficial. For these reasons, FairVote has submitted comments to the Federal Election Commission in support of a petition from Level the Playing Field, a nonprofit organization advocating for open debates.
Level the Playing Field’s petition asks the FEC, which has the ability to dictate candidate selection criteria to the CPD, to revise its current regulations to provide an additional means to earn a spot in the presidential and vice-presidential debates using signature gathering. Level the Playing Field’s signature method allows the independent or third party candidate that gathers the most signatures to participate in the debates, provided such candidate is on the ballot in states with more than 270 total Electoral College votes. Thus, one candidate could participate in the debates without having to raise the unprecedented levels of funding required to surpass the CPD’s polling threshold and be certain they had earned that right in the spring, giving them plenty of time to build support for their fall campaign.
FairVote strongly supports Level the Playing Field’s proposed signature method and believes it provides an important alternative avenue for minor party participation in the presidential elections. In our letter backing the method, we address concerns people might have about this approach, including being able to validate signatures and to avoid fringe candidates from abusing this alternative qualification method.
In addition, requiring a lower polling threshold would be both fairer and more in line with other FEC regulations and international candidate selection standards. In an effort made prior to the 2000 elections, the Appleseed Citizens’ Task Force, a group comprised of prominent scholars and civic leaders, advocated for the adoption of a five percent polling threshold. A five percent threshold is much more easily obtainable, is equal to the level of support required to receive public funding under the Presidential Election Campaign Act, and is on par with the polling thresholds required by other modern nations such as Canada and Germany.
But such a change is no substitute for Level the Playing Field's proposal. Opinion polling has clearly demonstrated that American voters support the inclusion of independent and minor party candidates in the debates, with the proportion of Americans favoring the inclusion of minor party candidates remaining strong since the CPD first adopted the 15% threshold. Including independent and minor party candidates has also been directly linked to increased voter turnout in the general election. With a steadily rising share of American registering to vote as unaffiliated with a major party, it’s time for the FEC to amend its regulations to provide an alternative method for including candidates in the presidential and vice presidential debates.