On October 26, Gov. Gary Johnson will speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court, urging action to end the unfair and arbitrary exclusion of third-party and independent candidates from the nationally-televised presidential debates. Many are hopeful that 2020 will finally see a more inclusive standard.
Debate inclusion isn’t just an issue at the presidential level, of course. In many states, inclusive debates are the common and expected norm, including every candidate on the ballot. In other states, miniature versions of the Commission on Presidential Debates produce a similar lockout, routinely hosting debates that feature only the two major-party candidates.
Many states allow third party candidates to debate
Part of the reason for the inconsistency is that debate sponsors and hosts vary from state to state.
In a few states, like Arizona, there exists an actual government commission that sponsors all or most of the debates. In these cases, debates tend to include all candidates on the ballot in order to avoid First Amendment lawsuits.
In others, like New York, the debates are usually hosted by local media outlets, but the long-established norm and expectation is that they will include all candidates on the ballot. Sometimes, this leads to some memorable footage of amusing fringe candidates sharing a stage with the incumbent governor or mayor.
Another common option, is to have a private debate commission, like the Utah Debate Commission, which is sponsored by a consortium of colleges and media outlets.
In some states, however, the situation is just as bad as the presidential debates. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association host debates, with criteria carefully crafted to exclude all but the Republican and Democratic nominees. With the major-party candidates refusing to participate in other, more inclusive debates, this leads to an effective cartel and monopoly – just as with the Commission on Presidential Debates.
High polling standards often keep alternative candidates out of debates
Debates for federal office typically fall under the same laws and regulations as the presidential election. In this case, debate sponsors are nominally required to use “objective, pre-established criteria” to determine who is included. What counts as “objective” is debatable.
In Wisconsin, the broadcasters’ association insists on using not only a polling threshold, but also a requirement for candidates to have at least a quarter of a million dollars on-hand. Aside from deliberately excluding most or all third-party candidates, this standard is oddly self-serving. That pile of cash, will be used by candidates mostly on purchasing advertisements from the WBA’s member stations.
For other debate sponsors, however, the criteria is simple and fair: if you’re on the ballot, you’re in the debate. This has simplicity and fairness on its side. Ballot access itself is often a significant hurdle, depending on the state’s election laws.
The most common standard, however, is a polling threshold. Five percent and 10 percent are both common numbers used, with few going as high as the CPD’s 15 percent rule. The margin of error on polling can sometimes result in an effectively lower threshold, with candidates allowed on-stage if the poll within the margin of error of the stated requirement.
It Utah, for example, Jim Bennett of the United Utah Party was included in the Utah Debate Commission’s debate on the special election for the third Congressional District, based upon receiving 6 percent, or within the 4 percent margin of error of the 10 percent requirement for inclusion. (Full disclosure: Bennett is a staff writer for The Jack News.)
Regardless of who hosts the debate and what official rules they use, the decision to exclude candidates is often met with public pressure. Sometimes, the debate sponsors change their minds in response to the outcry. Examples include the recent special congressional election in Montana. After the initial exclusion of Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks, debate sponsors reversed themselves and agreed to include him.
The Commission on Presidential Debates should learn from state debate standards
Opponents of inclusive debates cite many reasons to justify their policy. These arguments are often self-serving, however, particularly when they are made by one of the two major-party candidates.
Voter confusion, a crowded stage, or a general desire to exclude candidates not deemed “serious” are usually brought up. American federalism offers a ready rebuttal.
With so many states featuring all-inclusive debates as a matter of routine, there is little case to be made that these states somehow suffer as a result. Debates with three, four, five, or more candidates are common and successful, and often attract more voter attention and interest than the usual stage-managed faux-debates between only a Republican and a Democrat.
These examples can help inform the national debate, too. Contrary to the explanation offered by the Commission on Presidential Debates, there is no evidence of any negative effects from including more than two candidates in a debate. In fact, there are substantial benefits with no apparent cost.
(Pool photo from NPR on the candidates participating in the 2010 debate for the New York governor’s race, from left, Carl Paladino, Jimmy McMillan, Andrew Cuomo, Charles Barron, Howie Hawkins, Kristin M. Davis and Warren Redlich, — participate in an October 2010 debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.)