The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private group run by the Democratic and Republican parties, has controlled the US presidential debates since 1988. Given the fact that the major party duopoly runs the debate process, the CPD has effectively silenced third party candidates by setting an extremely strict rule for their inclusion which requires independent candidates to achieve 15% in 5 major public opinion polls prior to the debate, a feat requiring untold millions of dollars worth of advertising.

However, a group of elected officials and civic leaders, many of them card-carrying members of the Republican and Democratic parties, have launched a campaign called Change the Rule aimed at pressuring the CPD to adjust its rule to allow the top independent candidate who manages to attain ballot access in a sufficient number of states to achieve 270 electoral votes to participate in the presidential debates. This would allow voters to see the best-organized third party candidate who is on enough ballots to win the presidential election, which does effectively limit the number of candidates in the debate such that it would feature a Democrat, a Republican, and the third party candidate who attained the most signatures during the ballot access petition process.

Former prosecutor Alexandra Shapiro and Dr. Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, are spearheading Change the Rule, which includes a long list of political heavyweights. The group originally made its intentions known by sending a private letter to the CPD, but the organization’s dismissive response led them to go public with their initiative in an effort to turn on the heat.

Ex-FBI director Michael Hayden has signed on with Change the Rule, as has former Defense Secretary William Cohen and The Atlantic and National Journal publisher David Bradley. Jonathan Easley at The Hill wrote, “The list [of signatories] 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.).”

Change the Rule’s private letter to the CPD read, “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… 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 legal process mentioned by Change the Rule may be a reference to a separate FCC complaint that has reportedly been filed against CPD.

The CPD responded to the controversy in comments to The Hill and said, “The nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates reviews its candidate selection criteria every election cycle… The CPD will review its 2012 criteria in 2015 and appreciates the interest in these important voter education events.”

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