The tradition of presidential debates dates back to 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. While debates between presidential candidates occurred well before this election, the 1960 debate set a new precedent for televised debates that has become a staple in the election process.
From 1976 to 1988, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV) sponsored and moderated these debates. However, in 1988, the League withdrew from its position as moderator because the two campaign organizers issued a series of demands that the LWV said would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."
When the League stopped supporting debates, the Republican and Democratic parties created the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Alternately headed by former chairs of the Republican or Democratic National Committees, this highly partisan organization continues to maintain control over presidential debates to this day.
Because of the partisan nature of the commission, several issues continue to plague presidential debates.
These issues include, but are not limited to:
- Scripted answers;
- Shallow discussions;
- Special interests; and
- Exclusion of non-major party candidates.
For many, the latter of these issues has been one of the biggest frustrations with the CPD debates. The current CPD rule requires a non-major party candidate to poll at 15 percent or higher in 5 national public opinion polls hand-picked by the commission.
Organizations and campaigns seeking change argue that the major parties and the CPD have made it virtually impossible for candidates outside the Republican and Democratic parties to participate.
Change the Rule is a campaign with roughly 50 participants, including current and former government and military officials, as well as business and academic leaders. The campaign wants to give independent and third-party candidates an opportunity to participate in CPD debates through a ballot contest.
In order to get invited to participate in the presidential debates, a non-major party candidate not only must prove he or she will be eligible to appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical shot at garnering 270 electoral votes by April 30 of the election year, but they have to get more signatures than any additional candidate who meets the first requirement.In other words, only one non-major party candidate would be invited to participate.
On March 17, the Change the Rule campaign released a letter arguing for this plan. The letter was signed by former Governor Jon Huntsman (R-Utah), U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), businessman Greg Orman, and the Honorable Christine Todd-Whitman, former governor of New Jersey.
The plan does offer non-major party candidates an opportunity to participate in presidential debates, which would increase their visibility in the election. However, this solution doesn’t address the core issue of the partisan bias inherent in the CPD itself, which is the origin of the conflict surrounding presidential debates.
The other group seeking change, Open Debates, is a nonprofit organization with the dual mission of raising awareness about the “antidemocratic conduct” of the CPD and creating alternative debate sponsors.
In contrast to the Change the Rule campaign, Open Debates does not advocate for minor party inclusion. The goal of having debates sponsored by entities other than the CPD would be to have debates “reflect the wishes of the American people.” If the public wants independents and third parties represented, they would be.
According to the letter released by Change the Rule, public opinion polling suggests that 65 percent of Americans want to see non-major party candidates in presidential debates, which indicates that this would happen under Open Debates' new platform.
The group uses two criteria to determine who would be invited to participate in one or more of the debates.
1. The candidate must provide evidence of their constitutional eligibility to be president; and
2. The candidate must prove that they have ballot access in enough states to win an electoral majority (270 electoral votes).
This keeps the process loyal to the American public and makes it more reasonable for minor parties and independents to be duly represented, though not by any special rule or process.The Board of Directors for Open Debates includes John B. Anderson, Angela Buchanan, Pat Choate, Jon Hanson, George Farah, Larry Noble, Jamin B. Raskin, and Randall Robinson.
Creating a new debate platform with new sponsors would completely separate the debate process from the partisan CPD, eliminating the bias inherent in the commission while opening up opportunities for independent and minor party candidates.
Open Debate also addresses each problem with the CPD in depth, exploring issues like corporate influence through sponsorships and tailoring format to the wishes of major party candidates.
Both Change the Rule and Open Debates want to offer Americans more than two options in presidential debates. While Open Debates challenges the grip CPD and the major parties have on presidential debates, many voters would likely welcome either proposal over the status quo.
Photo Credit: U.S. Magazine