DONEGAN: If GOP Debate Stage Can Fit 11, Let Third Parties In General Election Debates

Wednesday’s prime-time CNN Republican presidential debate featuring 11 candidates was the “most watched” program in the news network’s history. According to CNN, an average of 22.9 million viewers tuned in and heard Republican presidential candidates debating the issues.

Meanwhile, based on claims that doing otherwise would overload the general election stage with too many candidates, the Commission on Presidential Debates’ rule requiring third-party candidates to garner a minimum of 15 percent support in five major nationwide polls prior to being included in a general election presidential debate effectively and pointlessly excludes the one or two third-party candidates each cycle who manage to achieve ballot access in enough states to have the possibility of winning the presidency. Obtaining ballot access is a Herculean challenge for independents as is, but only a candidate with extreme wealth like Ross Perot or Donald Trump could afford to purchase the amount of advertising necessary to achieve 15 percent in nationwide opinion polls without having the initial exposure of appearing in televised presidential debates.

Ballot Access News’ Richard Winger, an election law expert, wrote after Wednesday’s debate, “It is now as clear as anything that a debate with a large number of candidates can be successful. After tonight, there simply is no coherent argument for general election debates that only include the two major party nominees.

For those who fear that including all ballot-qualified presidential candidates in general election debates will result in a chaotic melee, Winger points out, “In all U.S. history, there has never been a presidential election in which more than seven candidates had enough presidential elector candidates to theoretically win the election.

[RELATED: Commission on Presidential Debates Considers Ditching 15% Rule for Third Party Candidates]

While Winger’s analysis shows that even in worst-case scenarios a larger debate field could be managed, looking back at 2012’s presidential election, if all ballot-qualified candidates had been included, the debates would have only featured four candidates: Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney, and Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama.

Currently, basing general election debate participation on the ability to obtain ballot access would likely allow Americans to hear a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green candidate, four parties that encompass a broad range of ideological views in U.S. politics.

On the other hand, limiting the debates to only those candidates who have obtained at least 15 percent in five nationwide opinion polls has frozen third parties out of general election presidential debates and effectively created a two-party duopoly, disenfranchising independent voters and dimming Americans’ confidence in their political system.

The Commission on Presidential Debates should consider Winger’s analysis and accept the reality that it will always be possible to put together a coherent general election presidential debate featuring all of the candidates from parties organized well enough to achieve ballot access in enough states to where it is mathematically possible for them to obtain the 270 electoral votes required to become president.

The Republicans and Democrats in charge of the Commission on Presidential Debates can no longer claim that four candidates is too many when their own primary debates feature many more. It is time to change the rule and let voters hear from all of the small number of candidates each cycle who qualify under the law to potentially win the presidency.

For context, 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.

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