Organizing a Local Candidates Forum

  1. Form a committee. Participation on this committee falls within the Job Description for Legislative Advocacy Chair.
  2. 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.
  3. Set the date, and obtain a facility that is centrally located, if possible. If it will accommodate the number of candidates, a school district board room is an excellent location, and the physical environment, including audience space is, in most cases, already set up.
  4. Decide whether to videotape the forum. This can be done through a local cable TV station, a high school video production class, or by a volunteer. Video can be uploaded to an online videosharing site and the PTA website. Some local government TV channels are willing to work in partnership with the League of Women Voters and PTA to tape forums for replay. Note: The camera should focus only on the moderator and the candidates.
  5. Draft invitations to candidates. Be sure to include:
    a)  Complete information on date, time, and place;
    b)  Guidelines and ground rules for the forum (e.g., there will be only written questions, amount of time allowed for candidates’ responses; topics of questions; forum format (including time for opening and closing statements, candidate order for statements and answers, etc.); rules prohibiting campaign literature distribution in the forum room; if the forum will be videotaped for replay on cable TV or displayed on a website; etc.;
    c)  A request for any information needed from the candidate for promotion of the forum; e.g., biography and photo;
    d)  Name, address, telephone number and e-mail address of forum committee’s contact person;
    e)  Due date for the candidate to respond.
  6. Candidate schedules are often hectic. They may be contacted by many organizations with requests for information, personal appearances, and/or forums. 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 facilitate both the process of organizing the forum and communicating with the candidates.
  7. 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.
  8. Determine physical arrangements:
    a)  Provide adequate accessible seating for attendees.
    b)  Seating for candidates should be in the form of a head table, preferably elevated so they are visible to the audience. Seating assignments should be done by lottery with each candidate drawing a seat number prior to the beginning of the forum. The table should also be draped and water provided for candidates and moderator.
    c)  The moderator is the forum facilitator and may either stand at a podium or be seated at the table with the candidates. If the former, the moderator should be provided with a chair. If the latter, the moderator must be seated in a location that allows for eye contact with all candidates and control over the forum process and decorum.
    d)  Provide an adequate sound system with microphones available to rotate among the candidates, with a separate microphone for the moderator.
    e)  Provide tables for any refreshments and for any literature pertaining to the forum, such as agendas, programs, packets of candidates’ biographies and questionnaire responses.
    f)  Follow facility use permit regulations concerning distribution of campaign literature. Note: If a table is provided outside the forum room for candidate literature, the opportunity must be offered to all candidates. The materials should not be made available until the conclusion of the forum to avoid having them brought into the forum room. It is generally a good idea to place a limit on the amount of literature any individual candidate can place on the table to maintain the nonpartisan nature of the overall forum environment.
    g)  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.
  9. Identify volunteer responsibilities:
    a)  Volunteers from PTA and co-sponsoring organizations that organize and/or staff the forum should have no personal ties to any candidacy, and shall not have publicly expressed support or opposition to any of the candidates.
    b)  The forum committee should arrange for the following: greeters for both candidates and attendees; hospitality; person to open the forum and lead the Pledge of Allegiance – may be the moderator or president of the sponsoring organization(s).
    c)  Secure a neutral moderator. Consider requesting a representative of the League of Women Voters or a respected political editor from the local media. The moderator or his/her organization cannot have casually or formally endorsed any of the candidates.
    d)  Question Sorters – Enlist one PTA representative with no personal ties to any candidate, and one representative from each of the co-sponsoring organizations.
    e)  Timers – one to keep track of time, and one to hold up signs to signal candidates.
    f)  Two or three volunteers to hand out blank index cards, pick up questions and deliver them to the sorters.
  10. Publicity – articles for the newspaper, radio announcements, cable announcements, fliers for PTA newsletters, etc.
  11. On the day of the forum:
    a)  Attendees enter, ushers provide blank index cards on which attendees may write questions for the candidates. Each index card should be used for only one question.
    b)  Begin with Pledge of Allegiance, welcome and a statement of the nonpartisan policies of the sponsoring groups.
    c)  Moderator should go over the basic forum guidelines and procedures that were distributed to all candidates, so the audience will also understand them and know what to expect. The moderator must specify the length of time allowed for opening and closing statements, if they are included, and must also specify the amount of time each candidate will be given to respond to each question. If the forum is televised, this statement will inform the home audience as well. The moderator will also include the following information:

i.  The order of questions will be rotated among the candidates in random order.
ii.  Whether all questions will be in writing or if questions from attendees will be permitted.
iii.  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.
iv.  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.

d)  Timers should hold up signs to signal speakers:

i.   Green: start
ii.  Yellow: 15 seconds left
iii. Red: stop

e)  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.
f)  Begin forum. 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. (Note: 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.)
g)  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.

Figure A-3

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