As you are undoubtedly aware, in September 2014, Level the Playing Field filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Election Commission against the Commission on Presidential Debates (“CPD”) and its directors. The complaint argues that the CPD and its directors, in violation of federal law, have used nonobjective, biased rules designed to exclude independent or third-party candidates from the presidential debates.
We have reviewed the complaint and the original supporting research it includes, and we agree with its core conclusions. We believe the current rule requiring non-major party candidates to average over 15% in five polls taken just days before the debates does not meet the governing legal standard and is harmful to our democracy. Because the current rule affords independent candidates no chance to get into the debates, it dissuades men and women with extraordinary records of service to this country from running for President.
As a director of the CPD, you could ignore this complaint and wait for the ensuing legal process to play out. We think that would be a missed opportunity and an unfortunate mistake. Instead, we urge you to change the rule now in order to have a new, more democratic 2016 election that breaks free of our current tired and failing politics.
Sixty-two percent of Americans do not think the federal government has the consent of the governed, and 86% feel the political system is broken and does not serve the interests of the American people. Eighty-one percent believe that it is important to have independent candidates run for office, and 65% say they wish they had the option to vote for an independent candidate in a U.S. presidential election.1
Moreover, these problems of American democracy—including rising disenchantment and declining voter participation—are increasingly shaping the way the rest of the world perceives the United States, eroding the prestige of the American model and its capacity for moral leadership abroad.
We think your current position requires you to pay close attention to this overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the two-party system. Americans are clearly saying that they want a more open and competitive political system. As a director of the CPD, you occupy a position of enormous public trust with a responsibility to make decisions in a nonpartisan manner.
The current rule, however, serves only the interests of the Democratic and Republican parties in maintaining their duopoly. It creates a barrier to entry into the debates that since 1960 no American running outside the primaries has been able to overcome. It requires a non-major party candidate to spend an incremental amount of money that no independent candidate has ever raised nor any billionaire has ever spent. It relies on polls that are biased against third-party and independent candidates and are grossly inaccurate in predicting a three-way race. Furthermore, the selection and timing of each poll used in calculating the average is easily subject to manipulation.
Today, a majority of Americans believe that the most convincing reason to reform the presidential debates is to end the exclusion of independent candidates. Therefore, we strongly encourage you to embrace your public responsibility by improving the prospects for an additional qualified Presidential ticket debating during October 2016.
Right now you have the opportunity to reform the flawed status quo. A simple rule change that enables a candidate to qualify for the debates by some means other than polling and is resolved sufficiently in advance of the election to enable that candidate to compete on a level playing field will allow a credible alternative to emerge.
Before it adopted the 15% rule, the CPD endorsed fundraising ability, operational capacity, and numerical demonstrations of popular support (for example attendance at campaign rallies), as criteria for debate selection. A rule designed to capture these types of indicia of support could spur many outstanding men and women who are highly qualified to be President to consider running. And since a new rule would be applied well in advance of the debates, a third-party or independent candidate who qualified under it would enjoy the media coverage that a guaranteed spot in the debates would prompt. This would give the American people time to get to know a qualified, non-major-party presidential nominee who would be in the debates. Our democracy would be much better for it.
One possible rule change could keep the existing 15% polling requirement as one way to qualify for the debates, but add the following, alternative means: On April 30 before a November presidential election, any candidate, party, or nominating process with ballot access in states that collectively have at least 270 Electoral College votes would notify the CPD of that access. If there is more than one, then whoever has gathered the most signatures as part of the ballot access process will participate in the debates with the Democratic and Republican nominees.
We believe that the competition under such a rule would be vigorous, enabling, and a legitimate third candidate would emerge. We estimate that the winner of the signature competition will need to collect some 4 to 6 million signatures, obtained from a broad cross section of Americans – a clear demonstration of popular appeal. The cost and scale of that endeavor would not be insurmountable, but it is substantial enough to ensure that only someone with significant fundraising and operational capacity and public support could win. This signature drive competition – which is not unlike the early state primaries – provides one objective, fair, and measurable way to qualify for debate access.
It is certainly possible that implementing such a national signature drive competition – or any similar fair and unbiased rule – may confront unexpected logistical difficulties and indeed, a qualified candidate still might not meet the new criteria. However, we believe these risks pale in comparison to the opportunity to open up the political process and fundamentally improve the way we pick our President and Vice President.
Merely changing the polling threshold – for example by reducing it from 15% to 10% or simply deferring the issue to a later date, will not address the structural impediment to a truly fair and competitive presidential election.
By controlling access to the debates, the CPD effectively determines who has a credible chance to win the election. That is a solemn and historic responsibility we know you take seriously, and we strongly urge you to open up the debates and allow more choices for the American people.
Please do not assume that any of the signatories to this letter are committed to voting for an unaffiliated candidate in 2016. Individually, they may decide that the Democratic or Republican candidate is superior. What each signatory wants is the same thing the American people want: the restoration of honest competition in the way we select our president, as required by the law.
The best solution is to change the rule, level the playing field and discover which great Americans will run for President.
Given the looming 2016 presidential election cycle, we respectfully request a prompt response.
Former CBS News Correspondent, Board of Trustees of the Harvard Business School Club of New York City
The Honorable John B. Anderson
Former member of US House of Representatives, Independent candidate for President of the United States
Norman R. Augustine
Former Chairman and CEO of Martin Marietta Corporation and Lockheed Martin Corporation, Former Chairman of the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts of America
Governor Bruce Babbitt
16th Governor of Arizona, Formerly United States Secretary of the Interior, Arizona Attorney General, Chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, President of the League of Conservation Voters; Founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council
Chief Executive Officer of the United States Olympic Committee
Admiral Dennis C. Blair
Former United States Director of National Intelligence, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Command
Mary McInnis Boies
Founding Partner, Boies & McInnis LLP, member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, Dean’s Council of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government
Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth
Former US Ambassador to South Korea, the Philippines and Tunisia; Dean Emeritus of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University; U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy
David G. Bradley
Atlantic Media Company, Publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal, The Hotline and Government Executive, CityBridge Foundation
Founder, Passport Capital
Harry W. Clark
Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group, Senior Counselor, Brunswick Group
Senator William S. Cohen
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Cohen Group, Former United States Secretary of Defense, US Senator, US Representative, Member of the Board of Directors, CBS Corporation
Eliot R. Cutler
Chairman, MaineAsia LLC; President, The Lerner Foundation; former Independent candidate for Governor of Maine; former Partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; former Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget for Natural Resources, Energy and Science
W. Bowman Cutter
Senior Fellow and Director of the Next American Economy Project at the Roosevelt Institute, Chairman of the Board of CARE, founder and current Chairman of MicroVest. Former member of the National Economic Council, Deputy Assistant to the President; Office of Management and Budget, Executive Director for Budget
Dr. Larry Diamond
Stanford University Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution & Freeman Spogli Institute Director, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Peter E. Haas Faculty Co-Director, Haas Center for Public Service
William H. Donaldson
Founder of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, 27th Chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Formerly Chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange
Dr. Morris P. Fiorina
Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Former chairman of the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Studies. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences
Leslie C. Francis
Washington Media Group, Deputy chief of staff to President Carter, Former Executive director of the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
Dr. Francis Fukuyama
Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, Author of The End of History and the Last Man
Ambassador James K. Glassman
Visiting Fellow, American Enterprise Institute, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, former Chairman, U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, former Publisher, The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic, former Editor-in-Chief, Roll Call
The Honorable Lee H. Hamilton
Former member of US House of Representatives, Director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University
General Michael V. Hayden
Principal, the Chertoff Group; Retired US Air Force four-star general. Formerly Director of the National Security Agency, Principle Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
The Honorable Carla Anderson Hills
Chair and CEO of Hills & Company, International Consultants; Former United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, US Trade Representative, United States Assistant Attorney General, Co-Chair of the Council on Foreign Relations, of the Inter-American Dialogue, and the Advisory Board of the CSIS
Roderick M. Hills*
Former Chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Chairman of Hills Enterprises, Ltd.
Irvine O. Hockaday, Jr.
Former President and Chief Executive Officer, Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Governor Jon Huntsman
Chairman of Atlantic Council, Former Governor of Utah, Former US Ambassor to The People’s Republic of China
Governor Thomas Howard Kean, Sr.
Former Governor of New Jersey, Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission)
Senator Robert Kerrey
Former United States Senator from Nebraska, Governor of Nebraska; United States Navy SEAL officer and Medal of Honor recipient
Senator Angus King
Independent United States Senator from Maine, 72nd Governor of Maine
Dr. David King
Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Faculty Chair of the Masters in Public Administration program, Director of the Task Force on Election Administration for the National Commission on Election Reform
Senator Joseph Lieberman
Former United States Senator, Democratic Party nominee for Vice President
Dr. Aaron Lobel
Founder and President of America Abroad Media, Consultant to the Bipartisan Policy Center, Former research fellow at The Brookings Institution, Former National Security Fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, Former National Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
General Stanley A. McChrystal
Retired four-star general, former commander of US and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Afghanistan, former commander of the nation’s premier military counter-terrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)
Dean Vali R. Nasr
Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, served on the faculties of the Naval Postgraduate School, Stanford University, UC San Diego and the University of San Diego; Carnegie Scholar and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; member of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Democratic Institute
Ambassador John Negroponte
Research fellow, Yale University Jackson Institute for Global Affairs; United States Deputy Secretary of State, first ever Director of National Intelligence, United States ambassador in Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, US permanent representative to the United Nations, ambassador to Iraq
Denali Partners LLC, Independent candidate for US Senate, Kansas, Founder of the Common Sense Coalition, former national President of the Boys Nation
The Honorable Tim Penny
Former member of the US House of Representatives, Independent candidate for Governor of Minnesota
Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering
Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan. Chairman of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress
Nancy E. Roman
President and CEO, Capital Area Food Bank, Former Director of Public/Private Partnerships and Communications at the United Nation’s World Food Programme
The Honorable Christopher Shays
Former member of the US House of Representatives, 4th District of Connecticut; Co-chair Commission on Wartime Contracting
Bradley A. Smith
Josiah H. Blackmore II/Shirley M. Nault Professor of Law at Capital University Law School, Former Commissioner, Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Federal Election Commission
Ambassador Richard H. Solomon
Senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. Formerly president of the United States Institute of Peace, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Director of Policy Planning Department of State, senior staff National Security Council
Admiral James G. Stavridis
15th Commander, U.S. European Command; NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University
The Honorable David M. Walker
Seventh Comptroller General of the United States
The Honorable Vin Weber
Former member of the US House of Representatives, Former Chairman and current board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, member of Board of Trustees at the Aspen Institute, member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, Partner at Mercury
Judge William H. Webster
Chairman of the Homeland Security Advisory Council; Formerly Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Director of Central Intelligence, Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri
John C. Whitehead*
Board member, World Trade Center Memorial Foundation; Formerly chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, US Deputy Secretary of State, Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the United Nations Association, Chairman of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Harvard Board of Overseers, and Director of the New York Stock Exchange; Chairman Emeritus of The Brookings Institution
The Honorable Christine Todd-Whitman
50th Governor of New Jersey, Former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, President of the Whitman Strategy Group
(Note: This letter was originally sent to all members of the Board of Directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates on January 12, 2015. It has been updated with additional signatories as of February 26, 2015)
1 The first figure in this paragraph comes from a July 2014 Rasmussen poll, see 68% Think Election Rules Rigged for Incumbents, Rasmussen (July 13, 2014), and the remainder come from a July 2014 poll of 1,000 random likely voters conducted by Douglas E. Schoen.