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  • Writer's pictureOliver Hall

CCD and More Voter Choice Fund File FEC Complaint Alleging CNN’s Exclusive Biden-Trump Presidential Debate Will Violate Campaign Finance Law

Washington, D.C. (May 30, 2024): The nonpartisan Center for Competitive Democracy (CCD) and More Voter Choice Fund (MVCF) today filed a Complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that the presidential debate CNN plans to host on June 27, 2024 in its Atlanta, Georgia studios will violate the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and FEC regulations if CNN enforces its criteria to exclude every candidate except President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.   By staging such a debate, the Complaint alleges, CNN will be making prohibited corporate contributions to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump worth millions of dollars – the value of the broadcast airtime – and Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Trump’s acceptance of the contributions also will be unlawful.


The FECA prohibits corporations from making contributions to candidates for federal office and prohibits candidates from accepting them.  A “safe harbor” provision permits corporations – including broadcasters like CNN – to host and broadcast candidate debates provided they use “pre-existing, objective criteria” to determine which candidates may participate.  Additionally, debate-staging organizations may not use partisan affiliation as the sole criterion of a candidate’s eligibility.


On May 15, 2024 CNN announced that it would host a debate and that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump had already accepted invitations to participate.


CNN announced its criteria for candidate inclusion the same day.  One criterion is that “a candidate’s name must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency prior to the eligibility deadline” of June 20, 2024.


Neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump comply with that criterion, the Complaint alleges, because neither candidate will appear on any state ballot by the deadline.  Mr. Biden will not qualify for any state ballot unless and until he wins his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August, and Mr. Trump will not qualify unless and until he is nominated at the Republican National Convention in July.


CCD and MVCF sent CNN and the Biden and Trump campaigns a letter on May 20, 2024 advising that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump do not comply with CNN’s criteria.  No response has been received, but a CNN spokesperson told Newsweek that the candidates do comply because they are the “presumptive nominees” of their parties and they “will be allowed ballot access” once they are

nominated.  CNN did not deny that neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump will appear on any state ballot as of CNN’s June 20, 2024 deadline for determining their eligibility.


While CNN apparently intends to waive its ballot-qualification criterion as applied to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, it intends to enforce that same criterion against all other candidates.


According to CNN’s own reporting, the unusually early date selected for its debate “might help weed out third-party candidates that could cause problems for both Trump and Biden.”  The deadline for such candidates to qualify for the ballot in 46 states and the District of Columbia is later than CNN’s June deadline for determining their eligibility for debate participation, making it difficult if not impossible for minor party and independent candidates to comply with the ballot-qualification criterion.


News reports also indicate that CNN negotiated with the Biden and Trump campaigns for weeks to agree upon terms for the debate, and that CNN gave both campaigns assurances that no other candidate would participate.  A Biden campaign official told the Washington Post that Mr. Biden would not participate in a debate with any candidate except Mr. Trump, and a Biden adviser told Axios, “Our criteria for a 1:1 debate was made clear publicly, it was made clear to CNN and they understood our position when we accepted their offer.”


The Complaint alleges that CNN’s debate violates the FECA and FEC regulations because CNN is not using “pre-existing, objective criteria” to determine candidates’ eligibility.  It further alleges that by selectively enforcing its criteria against non-major party candidates only, and by setting its eligibility deadline earlier than the deadlines for such candidates to qualify for many state ballots, CNN deliberately structured its debate to exclude them, in violation of the prohibition on using partisan affiliation as the sole criterion for candidate participation.  Based on these violations, the Complaint alleges that CNN should not qualify as a bona-fide debate staging organization entitled to the FECA’s “safe harbor” provision.


“The Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns no longer even pretend to comply with campaign finance law with respect to candidate debates,” said CCD executive director Oliver Hall.  “They publicly flout the law, as if voters have no right to hear from other candidates, and CNN’s response is to give them a multi-million-dollar platform free of charge.  The FEC can and should do something about it by calling this sham of a debate what it is: an unlawful corporate contribution by CNN to the Biden and Trump campaigns.”

“For six election cycles now, the FEC’s regulations and the so-called ‘objective’ debate staging criteria have functioned to allow only the two major party candidates to always qualify for the presidential debates,” said MVCF Board Chair Theresa Amato.  “Consequently, the opportunity of free airtime to reach tens of millions of voters is exclusively and historically given to the two major parties, while those candidates who represent minor party or Independent viewpoints are effectively barred by criteria that never permits them to qualify and thus systemically denies them the opportunity to reach tens of millions of potential voters. This must change to open political competition in the marketplace of ideas.”



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