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The Plan

To ensure democratic and robust debate, the Citizens' Debate Commission will employ the following basic schedule, candidate selection criteria and general format requirements in future presidential debates:

The Citizens' Debate Commission aims to sponsor five 90-minute presidential debates and one 90-minute vice-presidential debate.

The Citizens' Debate Commission will employ criteria developed by the Appleseed Citizens' Task Force on Fair Debates, a project of the Appleseed Electoral Reform Project at American University Washington College of Law. The Appleseed Task Force on Fair Debates consists of numerous civic leaders, professors and elected officials, including: John C. Brittain, Dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law; John Bonifaz, Executive Director of the National Voting Rights Institute; Steve Cobble, former Political Director of the National Rainbow Coalition; Edward Still, Director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Rob Ritchie, Executive Director of The Center for Voting and Democracy.

The Appleseed Task Force criteria invite all candidates on enough state ballots to win an electoral college majority who either 1) register at five percent in national polls or 2) register a majority in national polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the presidential debates.

The Appleseed criteria ensure that popular third party challengers are allowed to participate without drowning out the voices of the two leading contenders for the presidency. In 1984 and 1988, only the major party candidates fulfilled the Appleseed criteria; in 1996 and 1992, only Ross Perot and the major party candidates managed to meet the Appleseed threshold; and in 2000, only Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and the major party candidates satisfied the criteria.

The two prongs of the Appleseed criteria that trigger inclusion - five percent and majority support - are rooted in democratic principles and federal law. The five percent threshold matches the public financing threshold for minor parties, which is the only legislative standard for measuring the viability of non-major parties. Elected officials codified five percent in the Federal Election Campaign Act, and taxpayers finance candidates whose parties attract five percent of the popular vote. The second prong of the Appleseed criteria - support for inclusion from a majority of eligible voters - is inherently democratic.

The Citizens' Debate Commission advocates the following format stipulations for future presidential debates:

  1. Follow-up questions must be permitted in every debate.
  2. At least one debate must include candidate-to-candidate questioning.
  3. At least two debates must include rebuttals and surrebuttals.
  4. Response times must not be overly restrictive.
  5. Candidates may only exercise a limited number of vetoes concerning the selection of moderators and panelists.

The Citizens' Debate Commission also proposes the following four basic formats for future presidential debates:

  1. Two single moderator debates: The single moderator format focuses attention on the candidates, rather than on the questioners. A least one of the single moderator debates would include direct candidate-to-candidate questioning, loose time restrictions and minimal interference from the moderator.
  2. Authentic town-hall debate: An authentic town-hall debate would be organized that prohibits the screening of questions and includes a representative sampling of Americans in the audience.
  3. Youth debate: The first-ever youth-run and youth-oriented presidential debate would be established. Young people are increasingly dismayed by and detached from electoral politics. A youth debate could inspire millions of young adults to tune into the presidential debates, raise atypical subject matters for national discourse, and prevent the candidates from anticipating many debate questions.
  4. Panel debate: Historically, panel debates have allowed educated reporters to question the candidates' policy plans and backgrounds. But rather than the panel consisting exclusively of reporters, the Citizens' Debate Commission would assemble a diverse panel of academic, civic, artistic, religious, media, labor and business leaders to ask questions.