Historic: FEC Chair Calls for Change to Debate Qualifications to Include Indie Candidates

During a hearing over whether the Federal Election Commission should consider changing a rule that effectively prevents indie candidates from qualifying for general election presidential debates, FEC chair Ann Ravel argued and voted in favor of considering a change to the rule, making her the first FEC chair in modern history to vote in favor of reforming the presidential debates to improve third-party candidates' chances of inclusion.

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During the Federal Election Commission’s July 16 hearing on presidential debate qualifications, FEC chair Ann Ravel called for the agency to consider instructing the Commission on Presidential Debates to change its rule requiring that indie candidates obtain 15 percent support in an average of prominent nationwide polls in order to qualify for televised general election presidential debates. However, the FEC concluded the hearing by voting 4-2 against considering the change.

Ballot Access News’ Richard Winger wrote, “The two commissioners who voted in favor of considering a better rule are Ann Ravel and Ellen Weintraub, both Democrats. It is believed this is the first time any FEC Commissioner has voted to do something about the problem that the Commission on Presidential Debates excludes candidates who are not Republican or Democratic nominees.

According to Presidential Debate News, Ravel argued at the hearing, “Polling thresholds in 2009 were once a valid, fair, and unbiased way to determine eligibility for debates to ensure that there was no unfair corporate promotion. We know now that things have changed in the last couple of years.

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She continued,”Our obligation, when it comes before us, is to make a decision about whether it is fair and whether clearly the need to have representation from third-party candidates and those who might not actually make it to the polls for whatever reason, but may actually be viable candidates. I think it is something that is within our purview and something that we should try to ensure, and so for those reasons… I think we should initiate a rulemaking.

Independent candidates have so far consistently failed to obtain the 15% support in nationwide polls needed seven weeks in advance to qualify for general election debates. Without a platform like the debates or billions in advertising to seek wider exposure, indie candidates do not have an opportunity to gain traction in the polls and get their messages out to voters.

FEC commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who also voted in favor of considering a change to the agency’s rulemaking on debate qualifications, said, “If we open up a rulemaking process, we could get comments and see whether there is a way that the rules could be tweaked in a way they could be more inclusive and encouraging of greater political participation which I think is a really important goal. I know everyone at the table talks about their desire to strengthen party organizations and I — I do think party organizations are important for our democracy, but the reality is — and I think my source here is a Pew poll, Pew Research Center, based on 2014 data, 39% identify as independents, 32% as Democrats, and 23% as Republicans.

Weintraub argued, “[Millennials] register as independents if they register. [They] identify themselves as independents, and may not feel like a debate between a Republican and Democrat is something that they are particularly engaged in or is going to encourage them to tune in and get involved and to get out and vote, and I think those are all important concerns for us…. With all due respect to counsel, I think we ought to open a rulemaking.”

Though the FEC voted against considering the rule change, the issue is not yet settled, as the debate reform group Level the Playing Field has an active lawsuit pending against the FEC alleging that it is violating federal election law by slanting the presidential debate system against independent candidates to the benefit of Democratic and Republican nominees. Also, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group empowered by the FEC to control debate qualifications, is considering changing the 15 percent polling rule.

The Truth in Media Project recently released a Consider This video highlighting the fact that independent voters now outnumber Republicans and Democrats. Watch it in the below-embedded video player.

For more 2016 election coverage, click here.

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