Time to Open the Presidential Debates

Elections are more than about choosing between candidates; they’re about an exchange of ideas and a discussion of important issues. That’s why I ran for Congress as an independent candidate in Pennsylvania’s 10th District last year — despite the long odds. Although I didn’t win, I received a greater share of support, more than 22,000 votes, than any other candidate running for U.S. House and challenging both major parties last election cycle.

One big reason for both my performance on Election Day and my decision to run in the first place was participating in the sole televised candidate debate. The debate gave me a platform not only to hold the incumbent Congressman accountable for his record but also to talk about issues neither of the other candidates would address — from campaign finance reform to Social Security reform. I was able to give voice to many voters who felt like they had none on that stage, earn their support, and, I believe, ultimately impact the priorities and positions of the eventual winner.

That’s what our electoral process is supposed to be about and why open debates among candidates are so important. However, this is not the case on the presidential level, and it is harming our democracy.

Take a step back and ask yourself: with a record number of candidates running for president in 2016, why has no credible independent candidate yet stepped forward?

It can’t be because America is all that happy with both major parties. In fact, the largest and fastest growing “party” today is none at all. A record 43% of Americans now identify as independent, according to Gallup.

And it can’t be because America lacks leaders who are unwilling to put country before party. Indeed, there is a significant number of business, civic, military, and political leaders who are passionate about doing so — including former Governor Jon Huntsman (R) and former Senator Joe Lieberman (D).

Rather, the absence of serious independent presidential candidates is due to the fact that the rules of the game have been rigged to keep them out. Some of these rules are more obvious that others. Draconian ballot access requirements and discriminatory public financing programs have drawn attention in the past. At the same time, a seemingly innocuous but far more insidious rule has flown under the radar, until now.

A group of 50 national leaders have recently come together to blow the whistle on a rule that is imposed by an unaccountable private organization established by both parties nearly 30 years ago.

The organization is the Commission on Presidential Debates and the rule is that any independent candidate must achieve 15% in public polling support in an average of five national polls leading up to the presidential debates in order to participate.

On its face, this rule may seem reasonable. Hundreds of candidates file to run for president and any serious debate needs to have some mechanism of filtering out those who are not credible contenders.

The problem, however, is that the current requirement is nearly impossible to satisfy for any non-billionaire candidate: in order to achieve 15% in the polls, a candidate would need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve significant name identification nationwide. Moreover, under this rule, a determination of eligibility is not made until shortly before the debate itself — providing uncertainty that will undermine an independent campaign.

Without a viable and predictable pathway to the presidential debates, an independent candidate simply does not have a viable pathway to win a national election. That means the media will not take the candidate seriously, which results in limited public awareness, support and fundraising (all of which would be necessary to qualify under the current debate rule). It’s a self-fulfilling political prophecy, and the Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates knows it: no independent has yet to qualify for the debates under the current rule in any presidential election.

So, what serious national leader would want to take on both major parties in such slanted circumstances? Even when a pathway to 50 state ballot access was made available by Americans Elect in 2012, the answer was “none”. And this is unlikely to change unless and until the debate rule changes, too.

One option for a far more equitable debate rule is to allow participation by any candidate who is on the ballot in enough states whereby he or she could conceivably win the election. If there is more than one candidate, participation could be limited to the candidate or candidates who gathered the most signatures to get on the ballot, as a demonstration of public support.

As evidenced by my own campaign, participation in a debate won’t guarantee an independent can win an election and won’t eliminate the many other obstacles standing in the way. But it can guarantee a level playing field for an exchange of ideas worthy of our democracy, and worthy of the participation of well-respected national leaders who are (as you’re reading this) still sitting on the sidelines.

A simple rule change can ensure the 2016 presidential election is a real competition, and not simply a farce propagated by the two-party duopoly and their allies. It’s time to open the debates.

Nick Troiano (www.NickTroiano.com) is from Milford, PA and was an independent candidate for U.S. Congress from Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District in 2014.