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The Libertarian candidates in the state’s U.S. House and Senate races want to be included in Montana Public Broadcasting Service’s debates in the coming days, but the station says they don’t meet its criteria to be invited.

The station did not invite Billings attorney Elinor Swanson, candidate for U.S. House, nor Rick Breckenridge, a surveyor from Proctor and candidate for U.S. Senate, citing that candidates who are asked to participate in its debate need at least 10 percent of support in independent election polls. The station’s U.S. Senate debate is Sept. 29, followed by the U.S. House debate on Oct. 6.

Swanson argues there was one poll out when the station initially made its decision to leave the Libertarian candidates out of the debate, and that poll didn’t include her name. About two months ago, Swanson created an online petition asking Montanans to support her effort to get invited to the PBS debate and has received roughly 500 signatures.

Across the country, there have been other instances when Libertarian candidates were not invited to participate in debates, but Swanson said she hopes to change the station’s mind with public pressure.

“Name recognition is everything and being included – having a voice at the table – is key,” Swanson said.

Breckenridge cited a complaint against the Federal Election Commission and said it was against the law for the station to use polling data as objective criteria for inclusion in a debate.

“The ballot should be the sole criteria as to who is included in a debate in a public forum,” he said.

Aaron Pruitt, interim director and general manager for PBS, said when the station first announced the debates in August it did not invite the Libertarian candidates because they did not meet the required threshold. Pruitt said since the announcement, the University of Montana Big Sky Poll conducted a survey that found 3.1 percent of voters in Montana would likely vote for Swanson, and 2.3 percent would likely vote for Breckenridge.

“The Big Sky Poll really makes sense for us to go with that, and I think that’s what we’ll stick with,” he said.

Pruitt said the station’s objective is to provide its viewers with the candidates who are more likely to be elected to the office in November and gain a deeper understanding of them. In the past, he said including third-party candidates has diluted the conversation and made it easier for the main candidates to deflect attention from their answers.

“We really believe that this format will lend for the deepest conversation,” Pruitt said.

The station is also planning on airing profiles of the top candidates in early October, and publishing profiles of the Libertarian candidates on its website simultaneously, Pruitt said.

Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College, said the big advantage to debates for third-party candidates is exposure. The most they can do is be a spoiler, Johnson said, noting that Libertarians historically steal votes from Republican candidates. That could matter in a very close election, he said.

“Generally, the Libertarian candidate would like the exposure, but they’re really not going to be able to secure that many votes no matter what they do in the general election,” Johnson said.

Breckenridge and Swanson have been invited to participate in Montana Television Network’s debates. Breckenridge will debate alongside Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican candidate Matt Rosendale in Great Falls on Oct. 6. Swanson will join Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte and Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams in a debate in Helena on Sept. 29.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at or 406-582-2630. Follow him on Twitter @TGIFreddy.

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