Commission on Presidential Debates
|Predecessor||League of Women Voters (sponsor)|
|Type||Non-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation|
|Purpose||Organize the United States presidential election debates|
|Michael D. McCurry|
|Board of directors: Howard Graham Buffett, John I. Jenkins, J.C. Danforth, J. Griffen, A. Hernandez, C. Kennedy, N.N. Minow, R.D. Parsons, D. Ridings, A.K. Simpson|
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) sponsors and produces debates for the United States presidential and vice presidential candidates and undertakes research and educational activities relating to the debates. The organization, which is a nonprofit corporation, has run each of the presidential debates held since 1988. The Commission's debates are sponsored by private contributions from foundations and corporations.
The Commission is headed by Frank Fahrenkopf, a former head of the Republican National Committee, and former White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry. As of 2014, the Board of directors consists of Howard Graham Buffett, John C. Danforth, Charles Gibson, John Griffen, Antonia Hernandez, John I. Jenkins, Newton N. Minow, Leon Panetta, Richard D. Parsons, Dorothy Ridings, Alan K. Simpson, Olympia Snowe, and Shirley M. Tilghman.
The CPD has hosted the 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 debates. Prior to this, the League of Women Voters hosted the 1976, 1980, and 1984 debates before it withdrew from the position as debate organizer.
In 1988, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of the presidential debates after the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns secretly agreed to a "memorandum of understanding" that would decide which candidates could participate in the debates, which individuals would be panelists (and therefore able to ask questions), and the height of the lecturns. The League rejected the demands and released a statement saying that they were withdrawing support for the debates because "the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."
At a 1987 press conference announcing the commission's creation, Fahrenkopf said that the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates, and Paul G. Kirk, Democratic national chairman, said he personally believed they should be excluded from the debates.
In 2000, the CPD established a rule that for a candidate to be included in the national debates he or she must garner at least 15% support across five national polls. This rule is considered controversial as Americans tune into the televised national debates and hear only the opinions of the two largest parties instead of the opinions of the multiple other U.S. parties, including three others considered "major" for being organized in a majority of the states and a couple dozen others considered "minor".
In 2003, a 501(c)(3) called Open Debates was formed to advocate debates that included third parties and that allowed exchanges among the candidates. Criticism by Open Debates of CPD for the 2012 election include the secret contract between CPD and the Obama and Romney campaigns (a complaint joined by 17 other organizations including Judicial Watch) and CPD informing the candidates of the debate topics in advance.
In 2004, citing the CPD's 32 page debate contract, Connie Rice on NPR's The Tavis Smiley Show called the CPD debates "news conferences," and "a reckless endangerment of democracy." On October 8, 2004, two presidential candidates, Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb were arrested while protesting the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding third-party candidates from the nationally televised debates in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 2008, the Center for Public Integrity labeled the CPD a "secretive tax-exempt organization." CPI analyzed the 2004 financials of the CPD, and found that 93 percent of the contributions to the non-profit CPD came from just six donors, the names of all of which were blacked out on the donor list provided to the CPI.
On October 16, 2012, Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein and vice-presidential nominee Cheri Honkala were arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to take part in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. The two women claim they were taken to a warehouse, and strapped for eight hours to chairs with plastic wrist restraints before being released.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed by third-party candidates challenging the CPD's policy of requiring a candidate to have 15% support in national polls to be included in Presidential debates. While the lawsuits have challenged the requirement on a number of grounds, including claims that it violates FEC rules and that it violates anti-trust laws, none of the lawsuits has been successful.
During the 2000 election, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader filed a complaint with the FEC, on the basis that corporate contributions to the CPD violate the Federal Election Campaign Act. The FEC ruled that the CPD's funding sources did not violate FECA, and, in 2005 the D.C. Circuit Court declined to overrule the FEC.
In 2012, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the CPD, the RNC and the DNC in D.C. Circuit Court citing the Sherman Act and claiming "restraint of trade" for denying competition to, for example, potentially receive the $400,000 annual presidential salary. The case was dismissed in 2014 due to lack of jurisdiction.
In September of 2015, the Libertarian and Green parties – along with Johnson and Jill Stein – filed another lawsuit against the CPD, DNC, RNC, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, charging violation of federal anti-trust laws. The case was dismissed in August 2016.
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- John Hagelin, et al. v. Federal Election Commission (D.C. Cir. 2005-08-09). Text
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- Gerstein, Josh (August 5, 2016). "Judge rejects third parties' suit against debate commission". Politico. Retrieved August 11, 2016.