A candidate forum is a great way to engage your community in an upcoming election.
Here are some basic pointers on how to organize a candidate forum:
- All candidates must be invited to present their views
- A nonpartisan moderator should be in charge of the meeting
- Fair procedures must be established and agreed to in advance.
Remember: PTA is a nonpartisan organization. This means PTA doesn’t support or oppose candidates. All of the candidates at your forum must be treated equally. This encourages candidates to participate and provides voters with unbiased information about potential officeholders. Maintaining a nonpartisan stance also is required by the IRS to protect PTA’s nonprofit 501(c)(3) status.
- Form a committee headed by your legislation chair.
- Determine whether PTA will sponsor the forum alone or with another nonpartisan organization, such as the League of Women Voters or a branch of the American Association of University Women.
- Set the date and obtain a facility that is centrally located, if possible. A school-district boardroom is an excellent location if it is large enough to accommodate all the candidates and your audience.
- Decide whether to videotape the forum. This can be done through a local cable TV station, a high-school video-production class or a volunteer. Some local-government TV channels are willing to work in partnership to tape forums for replay. Video should be focused only on the moderator and candidates, and can be uploaded to YouTube and PTA websites.
- Make a list of media sources you would like to promote and cover the event. Include newspaper, radio and television, and don’t forget about small community-media sources or non-English media outlets.
- Sit down with your planning committee and come up with a strategy for getting people to the event. If the event includes other organizations, each organization should target its own constituents and members.
Obtain home addresses and e-mail addresses of all official candidates from the Registrar of Voters, and send invitations by certified mail with a return receipt requested. The signed, returned receipts should be kept on file. Candidate schedules are often hectic: They may be contacted by many organizations with requests for information, personal appearances, and forums. So establishing a personal connection by calling all candidates or their campaigns to inform them about the forum, to extend an initial invitation and to advise them to look for a more formal invitation in the mail can both facilitate the process of organizing the forum and communicating with the candidates.
Be sure to include the date, time and place, as well as guidelines and ground rules like these examples:
- There will be only written questions
- Time for candidates’ responses
- Topics covered
- Time for opening and closing statements
- Candidate order for statements and answers
- Rules prohibiting campaign literature distribution.
Also be sure to note if the forum will be videotaped for replay, any requests for any candidate materials such as biographies and photos, the event contacts’ detailed information and due dates for candidates to respond.
Prepare the Event Venue
Ensure candidates, moderators and audience members are comfortable and engaged with these reminders:
- Make sure there is adequate and accessible seating for attendees.
- Place a head table for the candidates, preferably elevated so they are visible to the audience. The table should be draped and water provided for candidates and moderator.
- Create seating assignments by lottery with each candidate drawing a seat number prior to the beginning of the forum.
- Allow the moderator to either stand at a podium or be seated at the table with the candidates. The moderator should be provided with a chair and must be seated in a location that allows for eye contact with all candidates and control over the forum process and decorum.
- Provide a sound system with microphones available to rotate among the candidates, with a separate microphone for the moderator.
- Include tables for refreshments and literature pertaining to the forum, such as agendas, programs and packets of candidates’ biographies and questionnaire responses.
- Follow facility use permit regulations concerning distribution of campaign literature. Note that, if a table is provided outside the forum room for candidate literature, the opportunity must be offered to all candidates. It is a good idea to limit the amount of literature any candidate can place on the table to maintain the nonpartisan nature of the overall forum environment
- Provide a table for question sorters toward the front of the room. Timers should be located in the middle of the front row and visible to all candidates.
Volunteers should have no personal ties to any candidates and shall not have publicly expressed support or opposition to any of the candidates. There are several volunteer roles at candidate forums:
- Greeters for both candidates and attendees
- Person to open the forum and lead the Pledge of Allegiance
- Secure a neutral moderator, such as a representative from the League of Women Voters or a respected political editor from the local media
- Question sorters
- Timers, including keeping track of time and signaling candidates
- Assistants to hand out blank index carts for written questions, picking up questions and delivering them to sorters
- Public-relations volunteers to get forum announcements and news to media and PTA venues.
Attendees enter and ushers provide blank index cards for the candidates’ questions. Each index card should be used for only one question. Begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, welcome and a statement of the nonpartisan policies of the sponsoring groups. The moderator should go over the forum guidelines that were distributed to all candidates, specify the time allowed for opening statements and closing statements, if they are being used, and specify the time each candidate will be given to respond to each question.
The moderator will also include the following information:
- The order of questions will be rotated among the candidates in random order.
- Whether all questions will be in writing and submitted in advance, or if written questions from attendees at the forum will be permitted.
- All questions will be screened for relevance to avoid duplication, and to assure adherence to the guidelines and ground rules. Personal questions or attacks on any candidate will not be acknowledged
- If a question is directed to a specific candidate, it must be issue focused. The candidate will have a set amount of time to respond. All other candidates may have an opportunity to respond, if they so desire.
- If a question is directed to all candidates, each candidate will have up to one minute to respond.
Timers should hold up signs to signal speakers:
- Green: Start
- Yellow: 15 seconds left
- Red: Stop.
The moderator should state that verbal interaction between the audience and the candidates during the forum will not be permitted. The forum is neutral territory for a sharing of philosophy, ideas and information, not campaigning.
While candidates are giving their opening statements, screeners can begin sorting questions to be asked of the candidates. If questions have been received through outreach efforts prior to the forum, they should be included in the mix. After the opening statements, the moderator asks the candidates questions received from the question sorters. (In the event attendance is small at the beginning of the forum, the moderator should have a few questions in hand that were collected prior to the forum. This is even more important when the forum is televised.)
At the end of the event, the moderator or other designee should close and thank cosponsors, the TV station and home audience, if applicable, and everyone in the forum audience for attending, reminding them of the election date and encouraging them to study the candidates and cast their votes.