Florida Candidates Field Questions Chosen by the Public

Want to engage candidates in substantive dialogue about issues that matter most to voters? For starters, try asking the voters what they want to know.

Florida open debate Grayson Jolly

Florida Open Debate, April 25, 2016 / YouTube

There were no corporate sponsors, no commercials, and no questions about campaign politics.

In many ways, the “open debate” Monday night in Florida between U.S. Senate hopefuls Rep. Alan Grayson and Rep. David Jolly set a new standard for how to engage candidates in substantive dialogue about issues that matter most to voters.


For starters, try asking the voters what they want to know.

Grayson, a Democrat, and Jolly, a Republican, haven’t won their respective primaries yet—they’ll try to do that in August—but they decided in March to start holding debates after declaring themselves frontrunners in a crowded race.

The Open Debate Coalition, backed by groups and individuals across the political spectrum that aim to make debates more “of the people” by building them around questions proposed and voted on by the public, offered to host. The Coalition invited Rep. Patrick Murphy, the only other candidate at the time polling at 15 percent. He declined.

Prior to the debate, Lilia Tamm, program director for the Open Debate Coalition, said the Coalition hopes the Florida event serves as a model for the 2016 presidential debates and becomes the norm for every political office. [Read her earlier interview with Civicist about the power of crowdsourcing and agenda setting.]

The timing of the Florida debate was fortunate. The Commission on Presidential Debates started holding meetings this week to plan the three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate scheduled for this fall and is looking at different formats involving social media and public participation. Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the Commission, has already said the group is interested in “any experiments or new technologies” the Coalition uses to generate questions from the public.

More than 900 questions were submitted to FloridaOpenDebate.com in the week leading up to the debate, attracting 410,000 votes from across the country, including more than 84,000 in Florida. Debate moderators Cenk Uygur, co-host of the YouTube news channel The Young Turks, and Benny Johnson, creative director of Independent Journal Review, drew from the top 30 questions that received the most votes from Florida residents.

The bottom-up format led to a serious mix of issues, albeit one that skewed left. Social Security, campaign finance reform, climate change, and voting rights factored among the most popular questions. That could be due to a combination of the demographics of users and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of the Coalition’s backers, doing a better job than conservative groups in promoting the platform and encouraging participation.

“We need conservatives to begin to warm to this type of format and to participate as well,” Jolly told The Atlantic’s Russell Berman this week, adding, “Whether the questions come from the left or the right, if you’re standing as a candidate for the United States Senate, you should be able to answer whatever questions come your way.”

Which Jolly and Grayson did, in an amicable way, for 75 minutes. Candidates were told they would have one minute to respond to questions and 45 seconds for follow-ups, yet no one was cut off, and the tone between the moderators and the candidates remained more cordial than confrontational.

The first question, on campaign finance reform, opened the door for Jolly to discuss the Stop Act he introduced, which prohibits members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions. Uygur followed up, asking whether someone else could make the calls to donors—the first of several times he would push to ensure the candidates fully answered the voters’ questions.

The moderators also occasionally broadened the questions by providing supporting information or context that helped viewers to better understand the issues. For the most part, their role strengthened the debate, though there were a couple of moments, particularly around discussion of funding for Planned Parenthood, where Johnson unnecessarily added his own opinion. When Grayson protested the accuracy of Johnson’s remark, Johnson told him to “tweet at him” afterward. But Grayson persisted, and ultimately was allowed to deliver a forceful response.

The debate took place at the WUCF studio on the University of Central Florida campus and was streamed live across multiple internet platforms, including FloridaOpenDebate.com. Organizers counted 81,000 live viewers. The video has 99,000 viewers and counting on The Young Turks’ YouTube channel. An open video feed allowed any website or TV station to broadcast high-quality debate footage live or after the debate, and it has since aired twice on C-SPAN 2.

The voting period was cut off at noon on Monday, allowing the moderators time to make selections. They read questions out loud unless there was a video submission or the person whose question was chosen (or a surrogate) was in the studio. In a pre-recorded video, the actor Mark Ruffalo, an environmental activist, discussed the benefits of renewable energy in Florida before introducing this question from a Rhode Island resident: “Do you accept that climate change is the single greatest threat our world faces?”

Grayson said yes. Jolly said the bigger threat “are people who want to destroy the United States of America tomorrow,” one of the few references to terrorism in a debate that stayed tightly focused on domestic issues and steered clear of the horse race.

“I’m really happy that finally the American people get to see what it’s like to have two serious members of Congress struggling with the great issues of the day,” Grayson said during closing statements. “This is the way politics ought to be.” 

People posting to Twitter during the debate mostly seemed to agree. 

There was a definite contrast between this debate and the two town halls MSNBC was holding that same evening with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In separate interviews, both were asked all-too-familiar campaign questions: For Sanders, it was about endorsing Clinton and encouraging his supporters to back her if she’s the nominee; for Clinton, it was about a role for Sanders if she’s in the White House.

It kind of makes you wish there had been a vote.


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