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Nonpartisan Group Says Presidential Debate is Rigged; Illegal

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

On Wednesday, the Annenberg Working Group on Presidential Campaign Debate Reform -- a bipartisan group of officials from past presidential campaigns -- released a report with a number of recommendations to help "democratize" the presidential debate process ahead of the 2016 election.

The group's recommendations include:

  • Expanding the role of social media and including more diverse media outlets to host the debates, as well as enlarging the pool of moderators to include print journalists, retired judges and other experts, instead of solely relying on television journalists;
  • Eliminating on-site audiences for debates other than a town hall style debate. The Working Group noted that the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 are widely regarded as among the more successful debates, and had small studio audiences;
  • Revising the debate timetable to take into account the rise of early voting;
  • Employing a "chess clock" model to encourage more substantive answers and allow the candidates to go into greater depth on issues that are important to them.

The organization, however, did not issue a recommendation on third-party and independent participation in the fall debates because its members could not reach a consensus on the matter. A majority of the group, however, did support escalating support for independent and third-party inclusion, "with the criteria for participation in the first debate 10% of support in public polling, increasing to 15% for the second and 25% for the third," according to a press release.

"The Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group's recommendations are designed to increase the value and viewership of debates for all viewers, including those on social media, those who ballot early, and those who identify as independents," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

However, Cara Brown McCormick, president of Level the Playing Field, says the group's suggestions are not enough.

“The problem with the debates can’t be solved with a chess clock. We need to change the rules about who gets into the game,” said McCormick.

“The Annenberg report confirms that by a large majority, Americans want to open the debates for a healthier democracy. We commend this esteemed group for its recommendations on changes to debate format, but it’s just a shame that they did not deal with the most important format change of all – one that would allow for an independent candidate to participate in the fall debates,” McCormick continued. “We were hoping they would take the next logical step and demand that the Commission on Presidential Debates stop protecting the current duopoly with its exclusionary rule.”

Level the Playing Field is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports changing the Commission on Presidential Debates' (CPD) rule regarding the inclusion of non-major party candidates to allow an independent candidate to qualify for the debates.

The current rule, which the CPD has enforced since 2000, requires presidential candidates outside the two major parties to poll at 15 percent in 5 nationwide polls mere days before the first debate is scheduled to take place. In September 2014, Level the Playing Field filed a complaint with the FEC, finding the rule to be both biased and illegal.

McCormick believes that the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group's failure to recommend an avenue for broader access to the debates may have something to do with the group's composition. The group is mostly composed of "major players" in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

“This Working Group is bi-partisan. The Commission on Presidential Debates is bi-partisan. And the Federal Election Commission is bi-partisan. It should be no surprise to any of us that they have been unable to come up with a non-partisan solution that allows for independent candidates to compete,” she said.

However, Level the Playing Field says that while independents have little representation in these groups, the law is clear: debate rules are supposed to be nonpartisan, objective, and cannot lead to a per-determined outcome. McCormick insists that the current rule on candidate inclusion doesn't meet any of these requirements.

“[T]he current debate rule is designed to maximize the uncertainty of an independent’s participation in the debates. It stifles a candidate’s ability to gain name recognition. It perpetuates the duopoly and disincentives great Americans from running for President.  The rule is not only bad for our democracy, it is also illegal.” - Cara Brown McCormick, president of Level the Playing Field

Level the Playing Field proposes changing the criteria to allow an independent candidate to participate if they qualify to be on the ballot in enough states to have a mathematical shot at winning the election. If more than one candidate meets this criterion by April 30 of a presidential election year, the candidate with the most petition signatures during the ballot access process would participate in the fall debates.

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