Editorials

An end to rigged presidential debates?

The Observer editorial board

Last fall’s debates could have stood to have one more candidate in the mix beyond Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Last fall’s debates could have stood to have one more candidate in the mix beyond Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Bloomberg

Polls last fall suggested that Donald Trump was the least popular presidential nominee ever. They also showed Hillary Clinton was the second least popular.

That limited, dissatisfying choice prompted Americans’ desire for another option and helped give rise to Gary Johnson. A Libertarian former New Mexico governor, Johnson clawed his way to people’s attention, registering about 10 percent in the polls. His campaign crumbled partly because of a couple of gaffes (“What is Aleppo?”) – but also because entrenched interests firmly stack the system against independent and third-party presidential candidates.

One major example: the presidential debates, which are essentially off-limits to everyone but the Democratic and Republican nominees. Without that visible platform, independent candidates are forgotten and the two major parties are ensured a lock on voters’ attention.

That’s why we wrote in an editorial last August that “while the presidential election isn’t rigged … the debates sure seem to be.”

Now, a federal judge has generated hope that the debates can be unrigged and that voters can hear from at least one more perspective. U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that the Federal Election Commission must reconsider the criteria the Commission on Presidential Debates uses to determine who can get on stage. The primary one requires a third-party candidate to average 15 percent support in five national polls. The judge said the FEC, in finding that the commission did not play favorites, “acted arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law.”

Chutkan was perturbed that the FEC was so dismissive of a complaint brought by a nonprofit called Level the Playing Field along with others. Those groups offered a “mountain of submitted evidence” that the debates commission is closely tied to the major parties (which should prevent them from raising millions from corporations) and systematically tries to exclude anyone but the Democratic and Republican nominees. She ordered the FEC to consider that evidence more carefully.

The FEC responded in recent weeks by sticking to its guns, saying the debates commission’s treatment of third-party candidates is fair. Level the Playing Field will respond within the next two months, then Chutkan will decide.

We hope the result of all this is a process by which a legitimate independent or third-party candidate can get a crack at participating in at least the first presidential debate in 2020. It’s not that an independent candidate is likely to win the presidency. But with equal treatment in the debates, he or she could at least offer another perspective, force the major-party candidates to address issues in a different way and let voters make a more fully informed decision.

Details matter for what the new selection criteria would be. It might require millions of signatures from Americans, or an online national primary. Those details can be worked out. But with choices like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dominating the landscape, it couldn’t hurt to have a third voice on the stage.

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