Florida Open Debate Raises Question of Public Involvement

A U.S. Senate debate next week will be the first debate of 2016 to feature questions submitted entirely by the public. Will it influence the format of presidential debates?

florida open debateQuestions for presidential candidates have come from Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter this election cycle, but none of the primary debates focused entirely on issues determined by the public.

The first debate on a national stage to do so will take place this Monday night, when two U.S. Senate candidates in Florida, Rep. Alan Grayson and Rep. David Jolly, go head-to-head in an “open debate,” fielding questions from the public. The event will be hosted by the Open Debate Coalition, which has been working for the past eight years on increasing public involvement.


Anyone can submit and vote on questions for the candidates at FloridaOpenDebate.com up until 12 p.m. eastern on Monday, though only questions submitted by Floridians will be considered for the live debate. The hour-long debate, which can be viewed at the same URL, starts at 7 p.m.

Besides the fact that voters outside of Florida have an interest in who wins a U.S. senate race, Lilia Tamm, the Coalition’s program director, said organizers are inviting questions from around the country to build an understanding of and enthusiasm for open debates.

“The more that we have people asking for this in different races and in different states, up and down the ballot, the more that we have the ability to give that voice to people,” she said. “But it really requires a certain level of people being brought into the idea.”

Their participation also has a substantive impact. The vote tallies on the site reflect the overall national numbers, so every vote cast can affect which questions are trending or most seen on the site, thereby influencing the questions Florida voters see and vote on most, Tamm added.

The debate is also notable for bringing together candidates from opposing parties ahead of the actual primary election, which is set for Aug. 30. The race for the open Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Marco Rubio has attracted a lot of interest, yet two political veterans—Grayson, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 9th district, and Jolly, a Republican who represents the 13th—decided in March to start holding debates after declaring themselves the front-runners.

The Open Debate Coalition approached the candidates and both agreed to the debate format.

“Using the Open Debate Coalition model helps ensure we actually respond to the will of the people—and not just answer to the whims and wishes of the establishment and special interest agendas,” said Grayson in a press statement.

“This is a debate over the future of Florida, officiated by the voters, and intended to present two contrasting visions for the future of the country,” added Jolly.

The Coalition adopted the participation criteria set by the Commission on Presidential Debates and invited candidates who have reached a 15 percent average in primary polling. Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy was the only other candidate who met the criteria; he declined the invitation.

Debate moderators include Cenk Uygur, co-host of the YouTube news channel The Young Turks, and Benny Johnson, creative director of Independent Journal Review, an online news company based in Alexandria, Va. An open video feed will allow any website or TV station to broadcast the debate.

How Open Debates Work

The first-ever open debate, held in 2013 for a Massachusetts congressional race, attracted more than 1,600 questions, and more than 79,000 votes were cast. As of early Friday morning, nearly 200,000 votes had been cast in the Florida debate, with four days left to go.

The platform for the Florida open debate is similar to the 2013 structure, though the backend has been scaled to handle larger volumes of traffic, and more resources have been dedicated to limit spam and trolling.

“The most important thing for us is to have the site reflect the actual will of the voters,” said Tamm, adding that a well-run and safe space for everyone involved is essential to encouraging participation.

Questions fall under one of 10 issue areas, including civil rights, education, economy and jobs, taxes and budget, and society and community. According to the site guidelines, moderators have the right to move questions to a different category and to remove, modify, or combine similarly worded questions. The moderation process is entirely transparent, involving both site users and experts from Coalition organizations.

Authors are notified if changes are made to their submissions, and they can try to clarify their question or request a reversal. In addition, all changes are logged and viewable at floridaopendebate.com/changelog, along with the reason for the change.

Of the nearly 700 questions currently available to be voted on, the most popular ones—both nationally and among Florida voters—are about money in politics. Asked about notable questions, Tamm said that while a number of high-quality submissions have come in, there’s a bigger issue at play: the ability to change the conversation itself.

“It’s not so much that any one question is going to be particularly insightful or going to really dig deeper than the news media,” she said. “I think that the news media does quite a good job of digging deep on a lot of things, and it is their job to know the issues well enough to be able to do so.

“What we have as a collective—the power of the crowdsourcing—is the agenda setting. It’s saying, we’re going to give the people the power to decide what areas we want these candidates to be discussing in front of us. And by and large, there are no political questions. That’s the thing that’s really different.”

Tamm said social media companies that teamed up with networks hosting presidential primary debates did a good job of involving more people’s voices this year—especially Twitter, which helped CBS integrate a real-time tweet during the Democratic debate in Iowa. But the media still makes the call on which questions to include, which greatly limits the influence the public has on the overall conversation.

And when control of the conversation expands beyond the traditional gatekeepers—political parties, media, the Commission on Presidential Debates—the benefits can be felt by all, said Tamm.

“Showing that we not only bring a sense of participation to an audience, but we can actually bring a lot more audience members in—because they, especially younger people, expect a level of participation from their media experience that a traditional debate does not provide—is good for all of the stakeholders involved.”

Eight-Year Effort

The Open Debate Coalition was founded in 2008. Today it includes about 50 people and organizations (including Civic Hall co-founders Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej) from across the political spectrum. They all endorse a common principle: “The public should be empowered to conceive and select debate questions—so that questions addressed by candidates represent the will of the people.”

Tamm, the Coalition’s first full-time staff person, said the Coalition has been working to directly involve the public in a presidential debate since its founding and is optimistic 2016 could be the year.

“We’ve been talking with leadership,” she said.

The Coalition submitted proposals six months ago with the hope of nudging the Commission on Presidential Debates toward altering the traditional debate structure, which has remained mostly unchanged for the past decade.

Mike McCurry, co­-chairman of the Commission, indicated at a forum on presidential debates last month that questions will be curated from the public, but offered no specifics. 

About Florida’s open debate, McCurry said the Commission is “especially interested in any experiments or new technologies the Open Debates Coalition employs during the primary season to generate questions from the American public and put them—via a journalist/moderator—to the candidates.

“We have a working group exploring many ideas about debate formats,” he added, “and we hope to build on those things that are working to create a more vibrant public debate.”

The ultimate goal, said Tamm, is for open-debate technology to “trickle down” to other races, including those at the local level. That can more easily be done once a high-profile, national open debate takes place and sets the standard for how these types of events can be run.

“This has never been a technology problem,” she said, “it’s just the political will and the understanding of the technological space and all the stakeholders lining up and seeing this would be a benefit to them.”

And that’s been happening more, she said.

The Coalition approached news stations in Orlando and Tampa about hosting next week’s debate, and all deferred, saying they didn’t have enough time to pull together a quality production. But many of them were excited about the format, said Tamm, and encouraged the Coalition to try them again. This year, she’ll take that as a promising response.


Check out the Rethinking Debates series, a look at debate formats and innovations that increase civic engagement, and sign up for the Rethinking Debates newsletter for the latest posts and news.