In a CNN poll this week, Libertarian presidential candidate Governor Gary Johnson was polling at 13 percent in a four-way race between himself, Trump, Clinton and Green Party candidate for president, Dr. Jill Stein. It is impressive to see Governor Johnson at 13 percent, but it still isn’t enough for a candidate to be included in the Presidential Debates as set by the Presidential Debate Commission. Let’s breakdown the Presidential Debate Commission and see how they hurt the democratic practices in our country.
The first modern debates took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. These debates were put on by the major networks at the time, which were ABC, CBS and NBC. They went down in American history as the first televised national debates and very well helped decide the fate of the 1960 election. There were no other nationally televised debates after that election until 1976 when the nonpartisan League of Women voters came together to sponsor and put on these debates. The League would look at and determine major candidates to debate on a case-by-case basis. In 1980, the popular Republican Representative John Anderson ran for president as an Independent. Then President Jimmy Carter outright refused to be on stage with Representative Anderson in this election cycle, fearing he would take votes from him. The League came up with a compromise: Anderson would debate the Republican challenger former Governor of California Ronald Reagan. After that debate, Carter would face Reagan in another debate. This hurt Carter because it showed he would not debate a challenger and helped Reagan to win the presidency in 1980. This showed the American people that the League would not listen to the President and would not fall for his demands. The League would continue sponsoring debates until 1988. In 1988, the newly formed bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates took over the debate process from the League of Women voters. The Commission brought about a list of demands for their candidates that would increase their notoriety over any other Third Party or Independent candidate. The League would not stand for this and finally decided to stop sponsoring the debates. The chairman of the League at the time, Nancy Neuman, stated that “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public." Neuman and the League were being forced of moderating the debates and she was trying to show the American people what had happened by this public shamming. This gave full power to the Commission to run the Presidential Debates the way they wanted to. The Commission was and still is chaired by the heads of the Democratic and Republican Parties. The two parties do not want anyone but their candidates in the debates, which is why, from then on, there has not been a Third Party or Independent candidate in the debates. The only exception to this was in 1992 when Ross Perot had enough support to force the Commission to let him in the debates. He would end up earning about 19 percent of the vote but wouldn’t carry any electoral votes. In 2000, the Commission set up a new series of rules to regulate what candidates can debate. These rules were, “satisfaction of the eligibility requirements of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution,” “that the candidate qualify to have his/her name appear on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority” and “that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations selected by CPD, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.” The first two rules are reasonable, but the last rule is difficult to justify. There is little to no chance a candidate can earn 15 percent if they are not in the debate to begin with, thus creating a catch-22. This makes it even harder for Third Parties to get on the presidential debate stage. Though Third Parties often have their own presidential debates sponsored by organizations like Free and Equal Election Foundation and are often carried by some less popular news outlets like RT or Ora TV, it isn’t comparable to the mainstream debates put on by the Commission.
This is why, in a nutshell, the Presidential Debate Commission hurts democracy. They suppress alternative voices by steep requirements and hide candidates that may very well be what this country needs. We need to break up the CPD and let popular Third Party candidates debate alongside the Democratic and Republican candidates. Give America the full freedom we already think we have—give them the right to choose.