Martin O'Malley Lawyer Calls DNC Debates 'Legally Problematic'

Martin O'Malley Lawyer Calls DNC Debates 'Legally Problematic'

Created: 11 August, 2015
Last update: 16 October, 2022

Do the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) primary debate plans violate federal election rules? MSNBC reported Tuesday that an attorney for Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley believes that this is a very real possibility.

MSNBC reports:

"The DNC last week announced the schedule for its six presidential primary debates, including four before the Iowa Caucuses and two afterwards. O’Malley and fellow candidate Bernie Sanders came out against the schedule, demanding, as they have for months, more chances to face off on stage against front-runner Hillary Clinton. Of particular concern to O’Malley is the DNC’s exclusivity requirement, which would punish candidates and debate sponsors who participate in unsanctioned debates by barring them from participating in remaining official events. The DNC’s goal was to limit the unwieldy sprawl of the last Democratic primary in 2008, when the number of debates mushroomed to about two dozen."

"Entirely unprecedented" and "legally problematic" are the words O'Malley attorney Joe Sandler used to describe the DNC debates. Specifically, Sandler says the exclusivity clause is "legally unenforceable."

In a recent memo, Sandler writes that under Federal Election Commission rules, the format and structure cannot be controlled by any party or candidate committee, but must be decided by the debate sponsor(s). In the case of the 6 primary debates currently scheduled, there are a total of 10 media outlets and one nonprofit sponsoring the events.

Sandler writes:

“Legally the DNC cannot dictate the format or structure of any debate sponsored by a media outlet or 501(c)(3) organization – including the criteria for participation. Therefore, it would be legally problematic if any of the sponsors of the sanctioned debates has actually agreed to the ‘exclusivity’ requirement. And in any event, it is highly unlikely that any of those sponsors of the sanctioned debates would ultimately be willing to enforce that ‘exclusivity’ requirement.”

Sandler served on the DNC's general counsel from 1993 to 2008. He says the Democratic Party has never used an exclusivity rule in the past. In fact, Sandler said all major Democratic candidates in 2008, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, participated in unsanctioned debates.

Both O'Malley and Bernie Sanders blasted the DNC after it released the debate schedule. Both candidates believe there should be more debates.

“Shame on us as a party if the DNC tries to limit debate,” O'Malley said.“I believe we need more debates, not fewer debates. And I think it’s outrageous, actually, that the DNC would try to make this process decidedly undemocratic.”

"At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible — certainly more than six," Sanders remarked.

Read the full memo:

Photo Source: Reuters

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About the Author

Shawn M Griffiths

Shawn is the Election Reform Editor for He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas, and joined the IVN team in 2012. He has several years of experience covering the broad scope of political and election reform efforts across the country, and has an extensive knowledge of the movement at large. A native Texan, he now lives in San Diego, California.