Adding independent voices to the debate

The battle over the 2016 presidential debates is already underway. 

A new national campaign, Change the Rule, is pushing for the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to include a third-party party or independent candidate in next year’s debates.

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A bipartisan group of more than 40 current and former elected officials, Cabinet members, diplomats, high-ranking military officials, and business and academic leaders are backing the effort. 

In January, Change the Rule sent private letters to CPD board members requesting a rule change to remove some of the barriers to qualification facing nonmajor party candidates.

“Because the current rule affords independent candidates no chance to get into the debates, it dissuades men and women with extraordinary records of service to this country from running for President,” the letter, which hasn’t been released publicly until now, reads in part. “As a director of the CPD, you could ignore this complaint and wait for the ensuing legal process to play out. We think that would be a missed opportunity and an unfortunate mistake.”

The group says the terse response it received back — a two-sentence letter expressing gratitude for the input — has provoked them to take the fight public and take aim at the CPD, which activists describe as a “secretive, quasi-official group” of 17 unelected members.

A separate legal entity has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission and Change the Rule says legal challenges could follow over a rule the group says is in violation of federal law. 

Currently, the CPD requires nonmajor party candidates to receive 15 percent support in five separate polls conducted shortly before the debates to qualify. 

But Change the Rule argues the requirement allots undue influence to surveys biased against unaffiliated candidates. 

The group also says the rule creates unreasonable fundraising requirements for outsiders, effectively limiting the pool of potential nonmajor candidates to wealthy billionaires like Ross Perot, who in 1992 was the last nonmajor party candidate to participate in a presidential debate.

Change the Rule estimates that to receive 15 percent popular support in a poll, a nonmajor party candidate would have to spend close to $300 million to reach parity with the major party candidates. 

The group is pushing for an addendum to the current rule that would allow a candidate who gets on the ballot in states with a total of 270 electoral votes to qualify for the debate. 

If more than one candidate meets that threshold, the one who amasses the most signatures as part of a ballot access process would become the third participant in the debates. They estimate the candidate would have to acquire 4 to 6 million signatures.

The CPD told The Hill it’s in the process of reviewing the criteria for the 2016 debates.

“The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates reviews its candidate selection criteria every election cycle,” Executive Director Janet Brown said in a statement. “The CPD will review its 2012 criteria in 2015 and appreciates the interest in these important voter education events.”

But the group, led by Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and former federal prosecutor Alexandra Shapiro, believes the substantial and diverse list of political heavyweights backing their initiative have enough heft to bring public attention to the matter. 

Among the signatories are Sen. Angus KingAngus KingZika is a public health emergency; we need to work together to confront this head on Obama creates new national monument in Maine Reid: Dems could force Senate vote on Garland MORE (I-Maine); William Webster, the chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and former FBI director Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency; former Defense Secretary William Cohen; and David Bradley, the publisher of The Atlantic and National Journal.

The list also includes former Govs. Bruce Babbitt (D-Ariz.), Jon Huntsman (R-Utah), Thomas Keane (R-N.J.), and Christine Todd Whitman (R-N.J.), former Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and former Reps. John Anderson (R-Ill.), Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), and Vin Weber (R-Minn.).