Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aren't the only candidates in the race, but they're the only ones who will take the stage at the Sept. 26 presidential debate. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein won't have a chance to get their names and positions out there to the many disenchanted voters with whom they could resonate because neither candidate is averaging at least 15 percent in recent polls selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But there's a fairer criterion for assessing the candidates allowed to participate in the debates that the Commission should adopt.
A significant portion of the American electorate is not happy with its major-party options for president. Pew Research Center found that only 33 percent polled were satisfied with their choice of candidates, and the antipathy was equally high on both the right and left of the political spectrum.
Although they aren't hitting the magical number of 15 percent, Stein and particularly Johnson are performing very well this year for third-party candidates. Johnson's hovering between 8 and 9 percent on average, while Stein is hanging out around 3 percent. The prospect that either candidate would get near 15 percent without the opportunity to appear on the debate stage is very dim, and that's why the Commission should instead, as Stein and Johnson have advocated for, allow candidates to debate who are on the ballot in enough states to have a numerical possibility of achieving an electoral vote majority.
It's important to have some criteria for debate access, lest we end up with a hundred people cluttering the stage and turning the event into a chaotic sea of voices. In most states, getting on the ballot involves a lot of work from staffers and a network of volunteers to collect the required number of signatures by each state's deadline. Few people get on the ballot in enough states to have the chance of winning more than half of all Electoral College votes, so this criterion would serve as an appropriate limiting force.
Hinging debate access on ballot access is also much fairer than the current requirement of achieving 15 percent in polls. Third-party candidates are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to name recognition, and for them, the first presidential debate would likely be the boost their campaigns need to hit the double digits. A July Gallup poll found that 63 percent surveyed were unfamiliar with Johnson, and 68 percent were unfamiliar with Stein. Those numbers would take a big dip, and their poll numbers would likely shoot up, if they had the exposure afforded by the debate.
The second presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 9. Without being part of the first debate, Johnson won't likely see a big enough poll bump in such a short period of time to qualify for that one, either (and Stein is much farther away). Johnson's campaign has been circulating the hashtag #LetGaryDebate, and has a petition up that individuals can sign to show their support for a third podium. A Morning Consult survey found that about half of those polled wanted Johnson and Stein in the debates, a quarter didn't want them there, and the remaining quarter said they didn't know or expressed no opinion.
The 15 percent debate access requirement is a catch-22 that keeps third-party and independent challengers from being competitive against major-party candidates. I wouldn't condone keeping voters' options in the shadows during any election, but doing so in the current political climate is a major disservice.