The election isn’t rigged, but the presidential debates seem to be

The Observer editorial board

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson at a Salt Lake City rally this month.
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson at a Salt Lake City rally this month. Getty Images

For Libertarian Gary Johnson to participate in the three presidential debates this fall, he must satisfy two requirements. First, he must be on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance to win the Electoral College. Also, he must average 15 percent support in five national polls.

So says the Commission on Presidential Debates, the private and nonpartisan group that sponsors and produces the debates. The 15-percent rule, which the CPD established in 2000, makes sense on the surface: By the fall, voters have declared in polls whom they see as serious candidates. A 15-percent threshold keeps out the clutter of fringe candidates with no real shot at winning.

But since the 15-percent rule was established, no third-party candidate has satisfied it. And the Commission on Presidential Debates? It was formed and is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. Currently, its co-chairs are the former head of the Republican National Committee, Frank Fahrenkopf, and the former press secretary for President Bill Clinton, Mike McCurry.

So while the presidential election isn’t rigged (despite what some Republicans might want you to believe), the debates sure seem to be.

This year, perhaps more than any other, that should change. While neither Johnson nor Green Party candidate Jill Stein has met the 15-percent debate threshold thus far, polls have revealed again and again how dissatisfied Americans are with the major-party candidates. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have historically high unfavorable numbers, with some polls showing almost 40 percent of voters believing that neither is a good choice for president.

So why isn’t Johnson, who averages near 10 percent in most national polls, doing better? In part it’s the circular world of polling: He can’t get better numbers until pollsters recognize him as legitimate, but pollsters won’t do so until he gets better numbers. So instead they often frame their poll questions as a two-person race first, then include Johnson and Stein in a separate question.

Pollsters aren’t the only ones guilty of that, by the way. Because Johnson is a longshot to win, the media also are prone to framing the race as a two-candidate affair. Not all have done so; CNN, for one, should be applauded for two “town halls” in which Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, were given quality time to introduce themselves to Americans.

What did voters learn? For one, they saw a socially liberal and fiscally conservative ticket that emphasizes free markets and de-emphasizes government. More importantly, they saw an alternative to candidates they find wholly unappealing.

We think that alternative should find its way to at least the first debate stage. The commission should lower its poll threshold to a more reasonable 10 percent, and pollsters can help matters by eliminating questions that present the race as a binary Trump/Clinton choice.

It won’t win Gary Johnson the presidential election, but it could give more Americans something they say they want: another choice.