What was surprising, however, was a joint statement that was just released from two members of the FEC: the chair, Ann Ravel, and a commissioner, Ellen L. Weintraub. These two commissioners voted in favor of opening a rulemaking that would consider, in their words, "whether the existing rules are adequate to ensure that debates are conducted fairly and without a bias against non-major-party candidates." They lost that vote, 4-2, but in their statement (just released) they lay out a powerful argument against the current debate rules.
Ravel and Weintraub note that with so many Americans identifying themselves as independents (nearly as many as Republicans and Democrats combined), "we should not be satisfied with regulations that may be preventing their points of view from being represented in public debate."
They also point out that when Level the Playing Field asked for a rulemaking last year, the FEC received over 1,200 supporting comments - with only one opposed. The lone dissenter was the CPD itself.
Ravel and Weintraub write that while the CPD is not supposed to restrict participants in the final fall debates to merely the nominees of the two major parties, that has been precisely the result of its rules. The last time there was a third debater was in 1992, when Ross Perot was on the stage. Perot did not make the 15 percent threshold (he was polling at 8 percent shortly before the first debate), but the rules were different then. They were changed, we believe, because Perot managed to get into the debates. No more Perots! That's the rallying cry for the CPD. Some members have said as much publicly.
But listen to the eloquence of Ravel and Weintraub:
"[T]he effect of the 15-percent polling threshold has been that, since its adoption, only the two major party candidates have appeared in the debates. The Commission's regulations require that nomination by a major party may not be the sole objective criterion to determine who may participate in a debate. However, the criteria established by CPD seem to have accomplished the same result by different means. This problem has not gone unnoticed; the Commission received more than 1200 comments urging it to open a rulemaking, with CPD as the sole commenter opposing the petition.
"The FEC has an important role to play in ensuring broad participation in our political process, including in our public dialogue. At a time when an increasing number of Americans identify as independents, we should not be satisfied with regulations that may be preventing their points of view from being represented in public debate. At a minimum, we ought to engage with the public on this issue. It has been over twenty years since the Commission has taken a serious look at its rules on candidate debates. Such a re-examination is long overdue."
The FEC's decision, of course, does not end the matter. Far from it. We believe we will prevail in the lawsuit by Level the Playing Field and the Libertarian and Green parties to require the FEC and CPD to do their duty. Change the rule, open up the presidential debates and make room for an independent voice.