Challenging the CPD

Open the Presidential Debates

The presidential debate is the most important political conversation we have in this country.

Yet, the commission on presidential debates -- a private organization controlled by the two major political parties -- has not allowed a third voice in the presidential debates since 1992.


What’s the purpose of the presidential debates? Is it to determine who, of two people we pick, might win a general election? Or is it to have a conversation with the American people about different issues and ideas?


The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a partnership between three Democrats and three Republicans. They initiate the rules on the most important conversations political candidates have with the American people.

Federal election law requires the CPD to be nonpartisan and use “objective criteria” to determine who can be in their debates.

However, the CPD has made it impossible for independent and third party candidates to be included on the debate stage by changing the rules to serve their private purpose of advancing partisan candidates.

“...The two major parties have complete control over the initial and most important stages of the political process, including the primary elections and the presidential debates. Unless this Court is willing to consider the consequences of the CPD’s private control over our public discourse, we risk losing our nonpartisan right to a representative democracy forever,” Level the Playing Field, et. al. v. FEC, April 13, 2016

One example of this is the “15% rule” which requires candidates outside the major parties to poll at 15% in national polls that are handpicked by the CPD just seven weeks before Election Day. Independent and third party candidates are often left out of public polling and media coverage, thus making it impossible for them to acquire the name recognition needed to meet the polling threshold.

On April 13, 2016, the Independent Voter Project filed an amicus brief in support of Level the Playing Field to challenge the two-party control of the debate process and open up the conversation to more diverse voices.*

On February 1, 2017, Federal District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ruled that the FEC had acted in a manner that was “contrary to law” by rejecting the initial complaint by Level the Playing Field, and ignoring evidence that the CPD’s rules were decided unfairly and arbitrarily.

The FEC was ordered to reconsider the complaint against the CPD, but once again dismissed the mountain of evidence against the debate commission. Plaintiffs filed a second complaint , arguing that FEC was still acting “arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law.”

In September 2017, Level the Playing Field filed a motion for summary judgment and two new amicus curiae briefs were filed in the case: one by nonprofit leaders, scholars and practitioners, and another by the Independent Voter Project.*

To date, we are still waiting on a decision by the judge on this complaint.

Read more about the CPD’s rigged debates

*Read the first, second, and third amicus briefs that we filed.