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Third-party candidates upset at being left out of televised debates announced their intention Wednesday to file formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission and county district attorneys, among other officials.
The Utah Debate Commission held its first event Tuesday, pitting Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, against Democrat Donna McAleer. No third-party candidates were on the stage; they instead protested outside. And no third-party candidate will participate in the next debate, on Thursday at Southern Utah University, where Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, will face Democrat Luz Robles.
The leaders of the Independent American Party and the Constitution Party believe exclusion of their candidates violates laws meant to require equal time to candidates on broadcast stations, leading to a complaint destined for the Federal Communications Commission. They anticipate that the Libertarian Party will join their complaint.
The 8-page complaint criticizes Utah's public universities for participating in events that "are blatantly and selectively favoring the Republican and Democratic candidates over all other candidates," and the media for "not covering the news but creating the so-called 'news' from an impartial perspective."
Salt Lake Tribune Editor Terry Orme is a member of the Utah Debate Commission, a new coalition that includes prominent Republicans, Democrats, media representatives and academics. The commission paid for a poll to determine which candidates would participate in the debates.
Candidates receiving at least 10 percent would gain a spot and since the margin of error was nearly 4 percentage points, the commission said it would accept anyone who topped 6 percent. No third-party candidate did.
That surprised Nena Slighting, executive director of the commission, who said she hoped third-party candidates would reach the threshold. Some Democrats only received 12 percentage points in the poll, which illustrated how big the Republican Party's advantage is in Utah.
"We tried to give every benefit of the doubt to the third-party members," said Scott Howell, the commission co-chairman, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2012.
He said Utah's new commission followed the protocol used in the presidential debates. And while he would like third-party candidates to be on the stage, he said they need to put in the "sweat equity" it takes to build enough support to run a viable campaign.
The commission is holding debates in Utah's attorney general race and in each of the four U.S. House contests. Independent or third-party candidates will be on the ballot in each of those races.
In the complaint, these political parties say if they can access the ballot, then they should be able to access the debates.