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The New York Times
By Christopher Shays | Letter
To the Editor:
Americans are frustrated with their polarized political system and believe that their government just isn’t working, and they are right. A majority of voters are seeking solutions outside the two major parties, and there are now more independents than either registered Democrats or Republicans. But currently, independent candidates have no chance to influence the positions of the two party nominees, let alone be elected president, when they are not allowed to fully participate in the political process.
Why? A group of which I’m a part — comprising four dozen academics, business executives, and current and former military and political leaders — believes that the answer lies in the rules governing the 2016 presidential debates. These rules, which exclude independent and third-party candidates, are set by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission portrays itself as nonpartisan, but it is dominated by stalwart Democrats and Republicans who are determined to limit competition. Our group advocates a small change in the debate rules that would give a third candidate (just one) a real chance to be on the stage.
In an Upshot essay criticizing our effort (“No, a Debate Stage Isn’t a Magical Springboard for Minor Parties,” nytimes.com, June 4), Brendan Nyhan says changing debate rules “is unlikely to make a third-party or independent candidacy viable.”
Mr. Nyhan uses Ross Perot to illustrate his first point. Mr. Perot, a business executive, was admitted to the 1992 debates but did not win a single Electoral College vote. Actually, Mr. Perot’s experience supports our position. Shortly before the debates, he was favored by just 8 percent of likely voters. But in the election itself, after the debate had legitimized him as a candidate, Mr. Perot received 19 percent of the vote. Mr. Perot didn’t win, but his ideas about fiscal restraint clearly influenced the policies of President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress, resulting in four years of federal balanced budgets.
Today’s environment calls out for an independent candidate far more than 1992 did. Mr. Perot achieved his one-fifth vote at a time when 37 percent of the electorate called themselves independents. Today, the figure is 43 percent and climbing.
Under the current debate rules, an independent can’t get enough exposure to have a reasonable chance of getting elected. But under rules that would actually allow a third candidate to compete, it stands to reason that many Americans would cast their ballots for the kind of candidate whom they prefer, a candidate the partisan Commission on Presidential Debates is trying mightily to keep off the stage.
St. Michaels, Md.
(The writer, a Republican member of Congress from 1987 to 2009, is part of the Change the Rule campaign.)
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