Who makes up Presidential Debate Commission and why do they call all the shots?

Since 1988, the commission alone picks the venue, the date, the format and the moderators.

Earlier in the week, a decision put plexiglass between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris on the debate stage in Salt Lake City created some controversy.

Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates made news again announcing that next Thursday’s second debate of President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden would be virtual given it would only be 13 days after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19. The president immediately said he would not participate.

“I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Trump told Fox Business on Thursday morning.

On Friday, the moderator of that debate, the Twitter account of CSPAN’s Steve Scully claimed he was hacked by someone who posted a comment mention of Anthony Scaramucci, the onetime White House communications director who has since become a critic of the president. Scully has since disclosed he lied about being hacked.

“Steve Scully, the second Debate Moderator, is a Never Trumper, just like the son of the great Mike Wallace. Fix!!!” Trump tweeted Friday, making reference to Chris Wallace, the Fox News host who refereed the first debate that spun out of control.

So who makes up this commission and who put them in charge of presidential debates?

The Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 by Democratic and Republican Party chairmen who wanted to essentially take control of the debates.

Since 1988, the commission alone picks the venue, the date, the format and the moderators.

The debate commission has sought to avoid any appearance of choosing any political side, which means they are used to getting criticism from both parties.

The Presidential Debate Commission is led by three co-chairs:

  • Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee,
  • Former League of Voters President Dorothy Ridings
  • Former Democratic Institute President Kenneth Womack

There are also 10 board members and an executive director.

The commission has unfettered powers to make a decision like deciding that Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis was sufficient reason to make the next debate virtual.

“We haven’t officially canceled it yet, but as you know, today when the president rejected doing the debate next week, the Biden campaign immediately said that they were going to withdraw from it and they’ve arranged another network a town hall meeting," Fahrenkoph said. "We haven’t heard back yet from the Trump campaign as to exactly what they’re going to do.”

The personal views of board members, historically, have always been a point of contention. And even though the debate commission calls the debate, the candidates have every right to choose not to participate. Third-party candidates have for decades complained about Democrats and Republicans controlling the entire debate without independents being represented on their commission.

The third and final presidential debate is still scheduled for Oct. 22 in Nashville.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.