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Grassroots activists are putting the screws to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in hopes of getting the organization to change its plans for the party’s 2016 presidential debates.
The #AllowDebate movement is hoping recent criticism from White House hopefuls Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive things to watch for in the DNC race Sanders: I have little hope Trump will keep promises Democrats offer double-talk on Veterans Affairs MORE (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will force the DNC to address concerns they have with the events’ size, scope and rules.
The movement argues that the DNC is rigging the presidential primary by limiting its schedule of sanctioned debates to six — four of them before the first voters go to the polls — and banning candidates from participating in outside contests.
Their discontent echoes complaints from both O’Malley and Sanders at the committee’s summer meeting Friday afternoon over the DNC’s decision-making.
“Four debates and only four debates — we are told and not asked — before voters in our earliest states make their decision,” O’Malley said.
“This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before,” he said. “How does this help us make our case to the people? Whatever happened to open debates and the 50-state strategy?
“One debate in Iowa. That’s it,” O’Malley added. “One debate in New Hampshire. That’s all we can afford. Is this how the Democratic Party selects its nominee, or are we becoming something else? Something less?”
O’Malley’s fierce rebuke inspired an awkward interaction with DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) when the two crossed paths after his speech.
Sanders echoed O’Malley’s complaints after his own address in Minneapolis on Friday.
“I do,” the Vermont lawmaker replied when asked whether he agrees that the process is “rigged.”
#AllowDebate founder Ben Doernberg told The Hill on Friday that his group is counting on such mounting frustration to force the DNC into changing course.
“The Democrats are missing opportunities to have the spotlight, and I think it’s a huge mistake,” said Doernberg, a Democrat based in Boston.
“The core issue for me is that the Democratic Party should be all about making it as easy as possible for the candidates to reach as many potential voters as possible,” he said.
“The idea that people could get a view of five candidates in six debates is just ridiculous,” Doernberg added. “Preventing candidates from debating does not get them more attention. We the people are doing what we can.”
Doernberg said he launched #AllowDebate earlier this month after realizing that many Democrats like him are frustrated with the DNC’s handling of its presidential debates this election cycle.
It now boasts 30 active organizers, he added, and approximately 500 members.
“The DNC exists – at least in theory – to reflect the will of the voters,” Doernberg said. “It is incredibly obvious that the DNC apparatus views us a nuisance and purely wants us to go away. That just seems wrong to me.”
Doernberg said #AllowDebate is inspired by the stark contrast between this election cycle’s debate rules and the DNC’s 2008 approach.
He said his organization is exasperated with the DNC’s unwillingness to let candidates participate in outside debates, which was allowed the last time the Democratic nomination was up for grabs.
In the 2008 cycle, eventual nominee then-Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debated each other 27 times, including outside debates.
“I think telling the candidates that they are banned from participating in outside events is incredibly undemocratic,” Doernberg said.
“The effect of their decision is to have 20 less debates,” he said, contrasting the 2008 and 2016 debate formats. “There’s no way it’s not going to hurt. [The DNC] should be excited and proud to expose its ideas as often as possible.”
The DNC’s debate schedule currently has definitive dates for four contests, with tentative plans for two more.
The committee has repeatedly argued that such a format is sufficient for the party’s needs.
“We believe that six debates will give plenty of opportunity for the candidates to be seen side-by-side,” DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman told The Hill on Friday.
“I’m sure there will be lots of other forums for the candidates to make their case to voters and that they will make the most out of every opportunity.”
Doernberg said #AllowDebate is challenging the DNC’s stance on multiple fronts nationwide.
It began with demonstrations against Wasserman Schultz during her appearance at the Iowa State Fair earlier this month.
This week, the group collected signatures for a petition against the DNC’s debate format during the organization’s meeting in Minneapolis.
Up next, Doernberg said, is a protest at the DNC’s national headquarters in Washington next month.
That rally is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sept. 16 — two hours before the GOP airs its second televised debate on CNN.
“It’s not as if the Democrats are monolithic,” Doernberg said of the party’s 2016 presidential field. “I think there’s really a diverse range of candidates.”
“The people, the grassroots, are doing what they can,” he added. “I would bet a lot of money that the majority of phone calls that voters have made to the DNC this year are about the debate issue.”
The first televised Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 election is scheduled for Oct. 13 in Las Vegas. The DNC plans on airing the event live on CNN and Salem Radio.
Democrats have five options for their presidential nomination next year: front-runner Hillary Clinton and her challengers, O’Malley, Sanders, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee and former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.).
The RealClearPolitics polling average has Clinton leading Sanders, her closest competition, 47.8 percent to his 26.3 percent.
Rumors are also circulating that Vice President Joe Biden is seriously considering his own Oval Office bid. He is expected to announce his final decision next month.