Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and potential 2016 Libertarian presidential candidate, discussed the current lawsuit challenging the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) in an exclusive interview for IVN.
Among the plaintiffs in the suit, which concerns violations by the CPD and the Federal Election Commission, are the Green Party and the Libertarian National Committee. The purpose of the suit is to change the rules that obstruct third party candidates from participating in presidential debates.
The CPD was created by the Democratic and Republican parties “for the express purpose of keeping third party and independent candidates out of debates,” according to the plaintiffs.
A similar suit was filed prior to the 2012 campaign. In his interview, Johnson compared the outcome of that suit and the current action:
“It’s important to note that our 2012 suit was, unavoidably, filed very late in the process. Ironically, we had to be excluded in order to have a claim, and the CPD was very careful to not formally exclude anyone until right before the first debate. That timing issue clearly hurt our case.” - Gary Johnson
Johnson argues that the CPD has been “very open and, frankly, arrogant in their intent to exclude candidates other than the Republican and the Democrat.” He also claimed the CPD has “gone to extraordinary, documented lengths to ensure that no other nationally-televised debates can ‘compete’ with their own.”
Johnson has a lot at stake. In his 2012 bid for the presidency, he placed third, with under 1.3 million votes. He knows that to stand a real chance at the presidency, the first hurdle is winning the lawsuit.
What outcome constitutes a win? Johnson answered:
“A ‘win’ is very simple. If there are to be nationally-televised debates, they must include all candidates who are constitutionally qualified to serve and who appear on enough states’ ballots to potentially be elected in the Electoral College.” - Gary Johnson
According to the lawsuit, current CPD rules require “a candidate to poll at 15% in an average of five national polls taken in mid-September.” The plaintiffs argue that this is biased against independent and third party candidates, who do not receive the national attention generated by those running in the Democratic and Republican primaries.
“Simply removing the arbitrary polling requirement eliminates any potential bias and subjectivity from the decision as to who will be on the debate stage. That is the most straightforward and realistic solution,” Johnson explained.
The CPD case cites polling data that shows a "record number of Americans – well over 40% – now identify themselves as independent, and 62% say they would vote for an independent candidate for president in 2016."
So why should it be so hard to reach the 15% threshold?
“Unfortunately, while a majority of voters clearly are not satisfied with their ‘major party’ choices, they are also vulnerable to the perception, institutionalized by the Republicans and Democrats, that those are their only real choices. The debates are a big part of that perception, and the news media plays along.“ - Gary Johnson
According to Johnson. research shows that $100 million in spending would be required to match the media coverage automatically granted to the Republican and Democratic candidates.
“In short, reaching 15% without the inherent advantages enjoyed by the ‘major’ parties is virtually impossible,” he contends.Elaborating further, Johnson stated: "Achieving ballot access in dozens of states is a monumental, expensive process that provides a more-than-adequate and perfectly logical threshold. If a candidate can be elected, he or she should be allowed to participate. There is no need for any polling requirement.”
Other groups have also joined the campaign for more open debates. Yet, public complacency on the issue may be a barrier to building grassroots support for these efforts. Is there enough public awareness and support for efforts to open up debates?
“Not yet,” Johnson said. "It wasn’t enough in 2012 to deter the CPD from its exclusionary ways. Thousands of voices need to become millions, which is why the Our America Initiative’s effort is so crucial.”
To generate these millions of voices requires money – a lot of it – and Johnson does not underestimate the role this will play:
“Timing is obviously important, and frankly, an important element of that timing is funding. The CPD will have unlimited resources from its corporate and special interest supporters, and will use those resources to bury us with motions and other delaying tactics. It is essential that we have the resources to fight back and get a timely resolution.” - Gary Johnson
“We have a strong case, and when both the court and the public have an opportunity to see the lengths to which the Republicans and Democrats have gone to seize and maintain control over the debate process, we believe we can ultimately prevail,“ Johnson concluded.
Grassroots efforts have a history of overcoming great odds to achieve change. With a little help from the courts, that could become a reality for the 2016 presidential campaign and have a major impact on election dynamics this coming year and in the future.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr