Presidential Debate

Libertarian Party Gets Victory in Suit Aimed at the Partisanship of Commission on Presidential Debates

Federal Election Commission ordered by judge to give more serious considerations to arguments about the Commission on Presidential Debates' partisanship and criteria for admitting third party candidates.


The Libertarian Party, and fellow plaintiffs, won a victory in federal court this week in the case of Level the Playing Field v. FEC. (The full background of the case can be read from reporting here when it was first assigned its day in court and when the oral arguments occurred.)

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To quote from my previous reporting summing up what was at issue in the lawsuit, which while technically against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is ultimately targeting the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) for locking out third parties while pretending to be nonpartisan, the L.P. and its co-plaintiffs claim that:

the CPD has always been a deliberate duopoly for the two major parties and has "been violating FECA and FEC regulations limiting debate-sponsoring organizations' ability to use corporate funds to finance their activities" since its efforts are not truly "nonpartisan."

The suit accuses the FEC of "refus[ing] to enforce the law and ignored virtually all of this evidence in conclusorily dismissing the complaints even though there is plainly reason to believe that the CPD is violating FECA…."…

"The Court should…direct the FEC to do its job, which is to enforce the law and put an end to the CPD's biased, anti-democratic, and fundamentally corrupt and exclusionary polling rule."

Judge Tayna Chutkan in U.S. District Court for D.C. agreed with the L.P. and others that the FEC was derelict in its duties when it blithely refused to act on the those complaints about the CPD.

Plaintiffs allege that the Federal Election Commission ("FEC") has violated the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA")…. in dismissing two administrative complaints regarding the CPD and in denying a petition to engage in rulemaking to change the FEC's regulations regarding debate staging organizations.

Judge Chutkan explains how CPD's operations should be affected by the FEC and its enforcement of election finance law:

The debate staging regulation…acts as an exemption to the general ban on corporate contributions to or expenditures on behalf of political campaigns or candidates. To prevent debate staging organizations such as the CPD from operating as conduits for corporate contributions made to benefit only one or two candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties—via the much-watched prime-time debates—the regulations require these organizations to (1) be nonpartisan, (2) not endorse, support, or oppose candidates or campaigns, and (3) use pre-established, objective criteria.

If a debate staging organization fails to comply with the regulations, such as failing to use objective criteria in determining which candidates participate in its debates, then the value of the debate is actually a contribution or expenditure made to the participating political campaigns in violation of the Act.

The Act provides that any person who believes a violation of the Act has occurred may file an administrative complaint with the FEC…

The L.P. and its co-plaintiffs filed such a complaint in September 2014, as well as "a Petition for Rulemaking with the FEC [that] asked the FEC…to specifically bar debate staging organizations from using a polling threshold as the sole criterion for accessing general election presidential and vice-presidential debates."

They were not satisfied with the FEC's reaction, leading to the current lawsuit "challenging the dismissal of their administrative complaint…and the agency's decision not to engage in rulemaking" about the debate threshold.

Judge Chutkan agrees that the FEC did a shoddy and careless job in actually considering and reacting to the arguments and evidence the L.P. and others presented about the potential partisanship of CPD, and thus:

the court cannot defer to the FEC's analysis and further concludes that the FEC acted arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law when it determined that the CPD did not endorse, support, or oppose political parties in the 2012 election….On remand, the FEC is ORDERED to articulate its analysis in determining whether the CPD endorsed, supported, or opposed political parties or candidates….

….the FEC must demonstrate how it considered the evidence, particularly, but not necessarily limited to, the newly-submitted evidence of partisanship and political donations and the expert analyses regarding fundraising and polling.

As for the argument that the CPD's 15 percent polling requirement for third party access is not properly objective and is in fact clearly designed to privilege major parties, Judge Chutkan:

GRANTS Plaintiffs' motion….as to whether the FEC's analysis of the criterion's objectivity was arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law. While the court cannot and does not mandate that the FEC reach a different conclusion on remand, the court notes that the weight of Plaintiffs' evidence is substantial, and the FEC must demonstrate that it actually considered the full scope of this evidence, including the CPD chairmen's and directors' partisan political activity and the expert reports, as well as explain how and why it rejected this evidence in deciding that the CPD's polling requirement is an objective criterion

Judge Chutkan spells out that the L.P. and its co-plaintiffs:

clearly argued, and attempts to establish with significant evidence, that in presidential elections CPD's polling threshold is being used subjectively to exclude independent and third-party candidates, which has the effect of allowing corporations to channel money to the CPD's expenditures to the C campaigns they would be prohibited from giving the campaigns directly.

It further argued and presented evidence that polling thresholds are particularly unreliable and susceptible to this type of subjective use at the presidential level, undermining the FEC's stated goal of using "objective criteria to avoid the real or apparent potential for a quid pro quo, and to ensure the integrity and fairness of the process." In its Notice, the FEC brushed these arguments aside….

Judge Chutkan is thus demanding the FEC do a better job actually grappling with those arguments. This does not mean that the CPD is on the ropes or will somehow instantly be required to either give up its firewall against third parties or stop taking in the corporate bucks.

But it does mean the FEC is going to have to come up with convincing reasons why the CPD isn't bipartisan rather than nonpartisan and why the CPD's debate inclusion criteria are fair and objective and not partisan. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Via the always indispensable Ballot Access News.