Since its creation in 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has been sued in every presidential election — excluding the 2008 race — with absolutely no results. Typically, the suits revolve around the process of opening the presidential debates to more candidates and the overall unfairness of the two-party system. However, despite these numerous and vehement challenges, outside parties have never been able to change the system — until now.
Level the Playing Field (LPF), a nonprofit group in collaboration with the Libertarian National Committee and the Green Party of the United States, filed yet another suit against the CPD after third party candidates were once again barred from joining in the 2016 presidential debates. However, thanks to an unprecedented ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, the CPD may finally be forced to change its unfair debate requirements. Chutkan ruled that by ignoring the repetitive complaints submitted by LPF, the supposedly unbiased CPD was favoring both the Democratic and Republican parties.
What is the Commission of Federal Debates?
An independent nonprofit corporation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) was established in 1987 by a joint sponsorship between the Democratic and Republican parties. The CPD’s job is to sponsor and produce the presidential and vice-presidential debates. This often includes producing research and educational activities relating to the debates, sponsored by private donations from various foundations and corporations.
While a few organizations stood against the CPD from the beginning, real resistance didn’t start until 2000 when the CPD established a rule which required candidates to poll at least 15 with American voters across five national polls before being allowed into the debates. This effectively barred third parties from these crucial debates and permanently established the main two parties.
Further controversy centered around key members of the commission who have repeated donated thousands of dollars to the Republican and Democratic national committees. This, opponents insist, violates the CPD's core principle on nonpartisanship.
Level the Playing Field vs. FEC
Level the Playing Field allegated that by forcing candidates to clear a 15 percent threshold, the CPD eliminated any realistic possibility of a third party candidate having access to the debates and violated federal election laws. In light of this, LPF filed a suit against the Federal Election Committee (FEC) and requested that the organization intervene, which has so far been ignored.
Lacking any recent comments from the commission or the FEC about the judge’s ruling, officials have always insisted that the commission exists only to ensure viable candidates make it onto the debate stage and that it does not play favorites. Additionally, some officials have pointed out that the commission doesn’t bar organizations from hosting their own debates in order to cross the 15 percent threshold.
However, it is that last point that Level the Playing Field centered its legal complaint around. LPF insisted that under the current rules, third party candidates are required to gain massive support prior to the general election debates - they estimated that third party candidates would need a minimal 60 percent national name recognition. Given the small amount of time and funds available for third parties, this requirement is infeasible and unfair.
Because when it comes to election tools, LPF pointed out that third parties truly get the short end of the stick. Not only are third party candidates generally prevented from getting on closed primary ballots, they also have to play by a different set of donation rules. Under FEC rules, Republican and Democratic candidates can receive up to $537,000 in “soft money” donations from an individual donor. However, third party candidates cannot receive more than $5,200 from any individual donor for the two years leading up to the election. Level the Playing Field advocated that this makes clearing the threshold impossible.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled in favor of Level the Playing Field. As of February 1, the FEC has 30 days to explain its original decision to dismiss LPF’s complaint before the court. Additionally, the organization has been given 60 days to reconsider the changing the rules of debate as LPF requested.
What it Means on Campus
Not only is this decision huge for third parties as a whole, it's great for campus organizations. The biggest barriers third party groups face is simply getting their message out. However, allowing candidates real airtime during presidential elections and allowing them to demonstrate their political brand may be exactly what third party groups need. Although the Young Americans for Liberty have done particularly well reaching out to college students and boast 308,927 members nationwide, other third party organizations haven't been so lucky. Young Greens of the United States struggle to be heard above the 250,000 College Republicans members or the 100,000 College Democrat members nationwide.
Ultimately, third party supporters are hoping that the lawsuit will require the CPD to modify its current debate rules. As for what would replace it, that is still open to debate. Some wish to completely rewrite the entire election system, implement online polls or simply rephrase poll questions to be less biased. Regardless of the solution, one thing America can agree on is that after the Clinton and Trump campaigns, something must change. Hopefully, this lawsuit will be the first of many smalls step towards a more inclusive 2020 election.
Lead Image Credit: Christina B Castro via Flick Creative Commons