Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden, former Sens. Bob Kerrey and Joe Lieberman, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal are all among the 50 high-profile signatories of Change The Rule’s open letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates. They are advocating the inclusion of a qualified third candidate in the debates. Change the Rule is a project of Level the Playing Field, a successor effort to Americans Elect which is also funded by billionaire Peter Ackerman.
Like the Our America Initiative lawsuit against the CPD from Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and the Libertarian and Green Parties, CTR says the current process is rigged against the inclusion of a third candidate, unfairly dominated by Republicans and Democrats, and that the starting point should be which candidates have secured ballot access in enough states to represent a possible winning majority of 270 Electoral College votes. Four candidates- Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein- met that threshold in 2012.
Unlike the Our America Initiative lawsuit however, Change the Rule would not include all such candidates in the debate. Instead they propose to include only a single independent or third-party candidate, based on which one gathered the most petition signatures in their ballot access drive. This is a rule which would effectively guarantee the inclusion of the weakest alternative candidate who is on the fewest ballots, among those who make it over the 270+ EV threshold. It would severely handicap existing parties like the Libertarians and Greens for having performed too well in previous elections.
Take a hypothetical 2016 scenario: the Libertarian nominee is on the ballot in all 50 states, and is performing better in fundraising and polling than any other alternative candidate. The Green nominee is on the ballot in 39 states, and isn’t doing as well as the Libertarian but seems poised for a solid 4th place finish in the popular vote. A wealthy Independent candidate is failing to get much traction, and isn’t showing up in any polls outside the margin of error. However, with a mostly self-funded effort, our Independent manages to secure ballot access in 25 states, barely crossing the threshold of 270 Electoral Votes, but still not on the ballot in the other 25 states comprising a majority of the population.
The obvious choice, if only one of the three candidates is to be allowed to debate, would be the candidate on the most ballots, whose campaign has the most support, and whose party placed third in the previous election. In this case that would be the Libertarian. That seems obvious, right?
In this scenario, however, the Libertarian didn’t have to petition in 30 states. The Greens didn’t have to petition in 21 states. That’s because they already have automatic ballot access in those states, and couldn’t petition there even if they wanted to. That’s something they’ve earned, just like the Republicans and Democrats, by getting enough votes for their nominees in previous elections, or maintaining a sufficient number of registered members.
In contrast our 5th-place Independent candidate petitioned onto all 25 of his states, more than the 20 states the Libertarian completed petitions in, and more than the 18 states the Greens successfully petitioned in. In doing so, he gathered more signatures, and so he would be the third candidate included in the debate, despite the fact that half of voters won’t see his name on the ballot and the two other excluded candidates have more support.
Change the Rule’s system, if adopted, would mean the inclusion of a third candidate in the debate. But the process of selecting that candidate, would be even more blatantly rigged against existing third-parties than the current rule (a 15% polling threshold).