Republican presidential candidates participated in a debate on Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)

A group of political elders, concerned that the American public is losing faith in the presidential election system, is pushing for changes to general-election debate rules to make it easier for independent candidates to gain traction.

The group, called Change the Rule, recently wrote a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that runs general-election debates, urging it to eliminate the rule requiring non-major-party candidates to average at least 15 percent in public polling to participate.

The letter was endorsed by 45 signatories, including former congressmen, governors, presidential candidates, Cabinet members, military officials and business leaders from both parties.

Their argument is that current rules discourage credible independent candidates from running for president because they are unlikely to meet the 15 percent polling threshold to appear in the debates. Without appearing in the debates and garnering the accompanying media attention, it is nearly impossible for independent candidates to win, the elders argue.

“Opening up the debates to just one more responsible candidate could change everything,” said former ambassador James K. Glassman, one of the signatories and the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. “I just think there are hundreds of people out there who would make really good candidates, not just people who’ve worked their way up through the party ranks.”

Former senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic vice-
presidential nominee in 2000 who later became an independent, also signed the letter.

“The two-party system has given us a dysfunctional government,” said Lieberman, who represented Connecticut. “That two-party system needs to be shaken up, and one of the best ways for that to happen is for there to be more third-party or independent candidacies.”

Changing the polling threshold could create problems for debate organizers. In a given cycle, 150 or more people register as candidates with the Federal Election Commission, although the vast majority are not considered credible.

Change the Rule is proposing a ballot access competition as opposed to a polling hurdle. Candidates’ strength and legitimacy would be measured by direct voter engagement, among other factors.

In its Jan. 12 letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group wrote that the 15 percent polling threshold rule is “harmful to our democracy.”

“The best solution is to change the rule, level the playing field and discover which great Americans will run for President,” the letter states.

Commission co-chairmen Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Michael D. McCurry responded in a Feb. 4 letter that “we welcome the information and viewpoint you provided and will be pleased to consider them as the CPD plans for 2016.”

The effort is being financed by Peter Ackerman, a managing director of investment firm Rockport Capital, who founded Americans Elect, an advocacy group that tried unsuccessfully to create a national online presidential primary in 2012.

In addition to Glassman and Lieberman, signers include former directors of national intelligence Dennis C. Blair and John Negroponte; former Clinton administration defense secretary William S. Cohen; former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael V. Hayden; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (R); former New Jersey governor Christine Todd-Whitman (R); former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean Sr. (R); Sen. Angus King (I-Maine); and Washington media executive David G. Bradley.