The Commission has done some excellent work. It has institutionalized presidential debates. No one will ever be elected president without participating.
But that success raises a challenge for American democracy.
A few years after Ross Perot shook up the 1992 presidential race with his performance in the debates, the CPD changed its rules by imposing a requirement that candidates average 15 percent support only seven weeks before the election - a near-impossible barrier to surmount. The result is that no independent has made it to the final fall debate stage ever since. As a result of this rule, no independent has a chance to be elected, or to influence the increasingly polarized views of the two parties.
Was the 15 percent polling criterion specifically meant to exclude independents? Listen to the joint comments of the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, and a fellow commissioner, Ellen 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 is the situation you have inherited.
The CPD's board includes some of the most respected men and women in America, but many of them, quite clearly, are torn between party loyalty and their legal mandate. It is absurd on its face for the co-chairs to be the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic activist who used to be press secretary to Bill Clinton.
It is worse than absurd for some board members to state publicly that they see their role as keeping independents out of the debates. Here, for example, is what your new colleague, former Sen. Alan Simpson, has said:
It is a two-party country.... I do not believe in independent party status. People who often are independent are people who are disgruntled. Many of them are quite zealous in their causes and I think those people sometimes are a bit turbulent in the political waters...The purpose of the commission, it seems to me, is to try to preserve the two-party system that works very well, and if you like the multi-party system, then go to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia and get picking around it instead of all this ethereal crap.
The Commission should not be blocking independents from the debates at a time when 43 percent of voters identify themselves as independents, compared with 27 percent Democrats and 27 percent Republicans.
Frank Fahrenkopf, the CPD co-chair, has repeatedly promised that the commission's rules for access to the 2016 debates would be issued one year before the first debate. But the first debate has been set for Sept. 26, and the new rules are now a month late - and counting.
We suggest that your first action as members of the board should be to ask your co-chairs to ensure that those rules no longer exclude independents. Level the Playing Field has proposed several alternatives and has expressed its eagerness to sit down with the commission to discuss a solution.
You have able colleagues like Mitch Daniels, John Jenkins, John Griffen and Newton Minow. Together, you can make our democracy healthier at this critical time. Please seize the opportunity.