Debate Commission Ignores Will of the Public, Keeps Independents Locked Out

After 10 months of bluff, dishonesty, and delay, the organization that manages the fall presidential debates, the grandiosely titled Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), last week issued its “selection criteria” for 2016.

They’re the same as they’ve been for the past two decades.

In other words, the CPD has decided to perpetuate its post-Ross Perot strategy of barring independent candidates from the debate stage by setting conditions that independents can’t meet.

Buried in the CPD’s Oct. 29 press release, however, is an intriguing sentence: “The criteria for 2016 were adopted by a majority vote of the CPD board.”

Majority vote.” The implication is that there were several, perhaps many, dissenters. The CPD, a 501c3, is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and operates entirely in secret. Whereas it’s hard to imagine more official business in our democracy than determining who can run for president, they do not report how they vote or publish any minutes of their proceedings.

Clearly, however, fissures are appearing in the duopoly regime that the CPD’s criteria are meant to perpetuate.

This year’s decision by the CPD is particularly hypocritical, in two ways….1. The main criterion, as usual, is that a candidate “have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”

Clearly, however, fissures are appearing in the duopoly regime that the CPD's criteria are meant to perpetuate.
But Gallup, the CPD’s own polling consultant, announced last month that, because presidential-election polling had become so difficult in an era of mobile phones and widespread refusal to cooperate with surveys, it would no longer conduct horse race polling for the primaries and was considering not polling for the general election.

“It’s a stunning move,” reported Politico.

(By the way, unlike the 2011 press release on criteria, this year’s does not mention Gallup. Nevertheless, the CPD is content to continue to rely on a fundamentally flawed indicator of who is allowed to be in the debates, and who is allowed to run for president.)

2. In the press release, the two co-chairs, former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf and former Bill Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, have the temerity to state:

“We are mindful of the changes in the electorate and the large number of voters who now self-identify as independents. We believe our candidate selection criteria appropriately address this dynamic. The CPD’s criteria make participation open to any candidate, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation or status as an independent, in whom the public has demonstrated significant interest and support.”

In other words, while the number of independents in the U.S. has swelled to the point that, in some polls, it nearly exceeds the number of Democrats and Republicans combined, the CPD refuses to acknowledge what is obvious to any fair observer.

Several months ago when Mr. McCurry was asked why under the current rules implemented in 2000 no independent has been in the national debates, his response was that “no independent has been good enough.”

The current chair of the FEC, Ann Ravel, and another commissioner, Ellen Weintraub, the first dissenters to the current rule, have a different perspective. They issued a statement in September that explained the situation well:

“[T]he effect of the 15-percent polling threshold has been that, since its adoption, only the two major party candidates have appeared in the debates. The Commission’s regulations require that nomination by a major party may not be the sole objective criterion to determine who may participate in a debate. However, the criteria established by CPD seem to have accomplished the same result by different means.”

With its decision last week, the CPD has now officially delegitimized itself.

And, on the heels of the CPD’s split vote, the media began carrying stories of how Bill Clinton, husband of the likely Democratic nominee, is one of two honorary co-chairmen of the commission. The other is Jimmy Carter.

The Daily Caller reported Sunday:

“A conflict of interest could be afoot at the Commission on Presidential Debates if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic presidential nomination. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, is an honorary chairman on the commission leadership board….”

What the Daily Caller and other media are missing is that conflicts of interest are a way of life at the commission. Directors of the CPD are making donations to Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the 2016 election, hosting fundraisers, indicating their support publicly, and supporting one or the other party. Some directors even boldly state that their job is to maintain two-party control.

While the CPD gives lip service to the need for debate access criteria without content bias (meaning no predetermined outcome as to who is on the debate stage), they don’t even have a conflict of interest policy to sustain even the appearance of objectivity in their rulemaking.

If we wanted only Republicans and Democrats to be president for centuries to come, we should just pass a Constitutional amendment. But we don’t need to, because the CPD ensures the same result. This is corruption on the grandest scale. It damages American democracy. It must come to an end.

Editor’s note: This article originally published on Presidential Debate News, and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.

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