WASHINGTON (CN) - The Commission on Presidential Debates shuts the door on minor party candidates - and the public - by barring third-party candidates even if they qualify for the debates, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson claims in Federal Court.
Johnson and his Libertarian Party campaign committee - Gary Johnson 2012 - sued the Commission in Federal Court for unlawful discrimination and breach of contract. Johnson claims the Commission kowtows to the two major parties and discriminates on the basis of party affiliation.
Johnson claims the Commission began its "hoodwinking of the American people" in 1988, when The League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship of that year's presidential debate.
The League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship to protest an agreement between the George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns that allowed the major party nominees to decide who would be invited to the debates, and who the panelists - i.e., questioners - would be. The League said at the time that going along with the major parties' demands "would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter."
Johnson says in his complaint: "The two major parties, acting through their national committees, organized the defendant Commission on Presidential Debates for the purpose of hosting debates at the exclusion of all other political parties."
Johnson claims that Republicans and Democrats are in cahoots to exclude third parties and their view from the 60 million Americans who watch the presidential debates. He says the Commission and the two major parties pulled off a "closed-door masterpiece" in establishing qualifications to participate in the debates.
To qualify for the debates, a candidate must be 35 years-old, a natural born citizen of the U.S. and resident for 14 years, and otherwise eligible to be hold the office under the Constitution.
Johnson says the Commission also requires that candidates be on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance at winning, and have the support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly reported results.
Johnson says he met all the qualifications, but was locked out of the debates anyway.
Johnson claims he's on the ballot in 48 states and the District of Columbia as the Libertarian Party nominee, and that he has "developed a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate," a process he claims "took thousands of man hours and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."
He claims that five recent national polls showed with at least 15 percent of the vote when matched head-to-head with President Obama. One pole, conducted by Gravis Marketing, had him at 34.1 percent up against the president, Johnson says.
"In addition, an Internet-based, nationwide, public survey of more than 4 million Americans, run by a nonpartisan company, called 'ISideWith.com', shows Johnson with a support of more than 40 percent, second only to Democratic candidate President Obama, and well above the support levels for Republican candidate Governor Romney," according to the complaint.
Johnson, 59, was governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, and ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, but dropped out of the race and joined the Libertarian Party, receiving its nomination for president in May.
As a governor, Johnson was known for vetoing hundreds of spending bills and taking time off to compete in Ironman Triathlons. According to The Atlantic, he also hiked Mount Everest with a broken leg.
Though he's considered a fiscal conservative, his views on marijuana legalization and abortion have earned him the attention of young people and liberals.
"Plaintiffs believe and aver that the Commission's failure to include Governor Johnson is attributable to Governor Johnson's Libertarian Party affiliation," the complaint states.
"The Commission has repeatedly refused and has excluded Governor Johnson from the debates, to his personal detriment, the detriment of his campaign, the detriment of his supporters and the detriment of the public generally.
"The debates create television exposure to more than 60 million American viewers for each debate, and countless follow up television, print and radio exposure, all of which results in increased visibility for the candidate's campaign and millions of dollars in fundraising for the featured candidates."
Johnson - too late for this year - asks that the Commission perform on its contract with presidential nominees, plus damages for breach of contract, bad faith and unlawful discrimination.
He is represented by Jason Garber of Reger Rizzo, of Towson, Md.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.