As the country emerged from the fog of Tuesday night’s bleak, shambolic presidential debate, pundits, politicians, and viewers at home began calling en masse for stricter measures that would prevent the candidates—specifically, President Donald Trump—from interrupting each other. One remedy put forward is a kill switch that would cut the microphone of a candidate who is speaking out of turn. This would theoretically prevent Trump from trying to buffet future debates with jeers and tirades meant to drown out Biden and the moderator, as was plainly his strategy. CBS reported on Wednesday that the Commission on Presidential Debates, which organizes the events, plans to make changes to the debate format to get candidates to abide by the rules, including “cutting off a candidate’s microphone if they violate the rules.”
Is a mute button all we need to bring some civility to the presidential debates? No, obviously. “As a practical matter, even if the president’s microphone had been shut, he still could have continued to interrupt, and it might well have been picked up on Biden’s microphone, and it still would have disrupted the proceedings in the hall,” Chris Wallace, who moderated Tuesday’s debate, told the New York Times on Wednesday. Others have pointed out that a kill switch could open the moderator to accusations of bias or trying to muzzle the candidates, and there have been doubts that Trump’s campaign would even agree to such a rule change. (Typically, the campaigns negotiate over the debate rules.) CBS is reporting, though, that the Commission on Presidential Debates is putting its foot down and any new rules would not be subject to negotiation. It’s unclear how exactly this will work or whether the interrupting will still be an issue for the next debate, which will be formatted like a town hall. (The third debate, however, was originally planned to have the same format as the first.)
Still, engaging a kill switch isn’t a totally hopeless idea. While there will undoubtedly be some obstacles for getting one set up for the next time Biden and Trump meet, the idea actually has worked in state-level debates. Jill Geisler, the media integrity chair at Loyola University–Chicago’s School of Communication, has hosted a number of Wisconsin senatorial and gubernatorial debates that had mic-cutting policies in place. Campaigns for the likes of Sen. Ron Johnson, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Gov. Tony Evers had agreed to the stipulation beforehand. Geisler first requested that Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which was putting on the debates, implement the measure during the 2014 election cycle. “I recognized how easily discourse in TV programming—you know, cable news or Crossfire—can go off the rails,” Geisler said. “Candidates sometimes ignore the guardrails in service of making a point.”
In the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association’s debates, it’s typically been up to the tech crew working the soundboard to hit the actual control that will disable the microphone. Geisler has in the past given a cue to the tech crew by telling the candidates twice that their time is up. At that point, the crew knows to silence the mic. “The moderators shouldn’t have to do that,” she said. “The moderator’s got enough other things to do.” Indeed, it can become unwieldy if a moderator has to keep switching mics on and off throughout the night while juggling everything else. The crew may also choose to silence the candidates’ mics when they’re not speaking, but this often just an aesthetic choice—no one wants to hear them coughing or scratching while their opponent is speaking. The candidates also have a countdown clock in front of them so they can manage their own time and avoid an intervention from the moderator.
Geisler has cut the mic on a candidate once before, when former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ran past his time while discussing the minimum wage during his first 2014 debate with challenger Mary Burke. Geisler warned Walker twice that he was over time, but he continued to speak. His mic then abruptly shut off and the moderator was able to talk over him to move the debate forward. Geisler remembers getting some mild criticism on Twitter over the incident but was satisfied overall with how it worked out. You can see the kill switch in action from this clip:
Though she hasn’t had to actually use it much, Geisler says that the very threat of the kill switch and the unflattering optics of having your mic cut helps to keep candidates in line. “It is so dramatic on television when a person’s lips are flapping and sound isn’t coming out, or when the camera leaves them,” she said. “They realize that there is not a lot else they can do other than abide by the rules or walk off.” Looking back at Tuesday’s debate, Geisler notes that it may have helped to bring out the kill switch right at the start, when Trump began undermining the debate format. That way, the expectations and consequences would’ve been clear for the rest of the night. She also suggested that it might’ve been helpful to train the camera only on the person who was supposed to be speaking, rather than showing them side by side and allowing for more interruption.