The 2016 election has come down to just one question in many political circles, 'just what makes a candidate viable enough to be included in the debates?'
This is true at the national, state, and local levels. And there needs to be an equitable and balanced answer.
On one hand, a complete shutout of only allowing the two major parties to debate is obviously an extreme, but on the other, the 2016 Republican primary showed what happens when more than a dozen were vying to get on the debate stage -- resolved only by having the 'grown-up' and 'kid's table' debate forums.
So what should make a candidate viable?
In national politics, for president, the name of the game is public opinion polling -- getting to that coveted 15 percent national support level is all important.
But also tied to this is having to 'appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College.'
Nothing else matters -- but should it?
It's a chicken-and-egg proposition. You need about 1 in 6 people to support you to get on the stage, but without the national platform, how are you going to get 1 in 6 people (and then hopefully more) to support your cause?
Even worse, when so many national and state-level polls have the two major parties as options, then 'undecided' or 'other' as the two leading secondary choices -- how is an independent or third party ever going to get good numbers?
Some suggest donations collected could be at least part of the measure for viability, but that makes little sense as well as it would put every self-funded billionaire in a position to skew national politics.
And then you have Donald Trump, who has spent relatively little money on his campaign -- relying on the principle that 'there's no such thing as bad press' to keep him in the spotlight, with literally billions of dollars worth of free media coverage from his antics.
Money can't be everything.
Probably the most equitable answer is to measure the candidate's ground-game as their only vitality measure -- and include all candidates who can achieve sufficient ballot access.
We are a federal republic, and you definitely need 270 electoral votes to win, but why should we even consider a candidate that hasn't reached a reasonable level of ballot access?
It's not a perfect answer, but it is one that puts each candidate firmly in the 'driver's seat' of their own destiny when it comes to being included in the national debates.
And it definitely doesn't need to be all 50 states.
Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, is a good example of this -- she's on the ballot in 28 states (according to updated numbers in a press release sent out Friday), write-in status in 2, 7 more states under petition review, and 2 states where the results are being challenged it court.
But (and heavy emphasis here) she's not on the ballot in all states. To be honest, she probably wouldn't have a prayer at winning the remaining states anyway, as part of the ultra-red swath of mid-America and conservative Southern and Mid-Atlantic states.
Yet, she could legitimately win with what she has. Fifty-state access isn't totally necessary or even desirable for her (probably a waste of resources in some states).
Because Stein and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, are on the ballots in so many states, they will have an impact on national politics whether or not they are on the debate schedule.
The two-party duopoly would like to keep them in the 'spoiler' category and stigma, and to an extent, without having greater national coverage they will certainly have some effect of spoiling in certain states -- namely, tight contests like Florida.
It's almost like the two-party system wants to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, because then they can continue their grip on business-as-usual, party politics.
At the state and local levels, if a candidate can do the 'hoop jumping' to get on the ballot, they should be deemed a viable candidate -- regardless of any other fact.
Sure, this might give the occasional insincere or even 'weirdo' candidate a bit too much of a platform, but the opposite is too damaging -- shutting out legitimate third-party and independent candidates from the process.
In the end, though, candidate viability is a symptom of a bigger problem -- the fact that our system of Australian-style balloting forces us into either-or thinking and voting.
Until we can muster the support for some system of national ranked-choice/instant-runoff voting, we will be always forced into voting for the lesser of two-evils, with the ominous cloud of 'throwing our votes away' if we step outside the box.
We shouldn't 'have to' step outside the box when it comes to voting. We need to get used to the fact that the ballot box can be a much bigger forum for us to use to voice our political opinions.