NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A nonprofit group and the Green and Libertarian parties filed suit Monday seeking to force open the general election presidential debates to candidates from outside the two major political parties.
The lawsuit filed against the Federal Election Commission seeks to force it to crack down on the Commission on Presidential Debates, which it argues is violating FEC rules that dictate that debates must be staged in a nonpartisan manner and candidates selected for participation based on objective criteria.
Alternatively, the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeks permission to sue the debate commission directly.
The plaintiffs, led by the advocacy group Level the Playing Field, also want to force the FEC to revise its current rules governing presidential debates.
"The objective of the lawsuit is to get a legal ruling that will force the CPD to change its rules of access, so a person who is neither a Democrat or a Republican has a realistic chance of participating in the fall general election debates," said Alexandra Shapiro, the lead attorney in the case.
The group cites research by pollster and campaign strategist Doug Schoen that says an independent candidate would need to spend at least $113 million on advertising to achieve 60 percent name recognition among voters, making it impossible "as a practical matter" for any candidate who does not run in the Democratic or Republican primaries to satisfy the 15 percent rule.
The lawsuit follows an administrative complaint and petition for rulemaking filed with the FEC by Level the Playing Field in September 2014, which they say has been ignored so far.
Janet Brown, the executive director of the debate commission, said in a statement its candidate selection criteria "have always been designed to ensure that the American public has an opportunity to see the leading candidates debate, regardless of those candidates' party affiliation or independent status."
Under the commission's 2012 rules, candidates were entitled to participate if they were constitutionally eligible to hold the office of president, had access on state ballots totaling at least 270 electoral college votes and had earned an average of at least 15 percent support in five national public opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the debates.
The same eligibility rules are applied to every candidate, she said, adding the commission has not made any decisions about its candidate selection criteria for 2016.
A spokeswoman for the FEC said the commission does not comment on litigation.