If you’ve been frustrated by presidential primary debates featuring questions by media personalities that skip issues that actually affect people’s lives, things may be about to change. On Monday, two Senate candidates will participate in a debate with questions submitted only by voters, not moderators.
The so-called Open Debate in Orlando, Florida, between Reps. David Jolly (R-Fla.) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) will be the first of its kind. The format is the brainchild of the Open Debate Coalition, founded in 2008 by organizations across the political spectrum to advocate for presidential debates that better represent what people want to know.
The coalition invited Grayson and Jolly to participate after the two candidates agreed to debate each other before their primaries for Florida's open Senate seat this summer. Jolly, Grayson and a slew of other candidates are vying to replace Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who gave up his seat for his unsuccessful run for president. The race is one of a handful that will determine which party wins control of the Senate in November.
“At a time of so much dismay about our campaign finance and voting laws, bottom-up Open Debates are a bright spot for our democracy -- and we are proud to co-host Monday’s big Open Debate in Orlando,” said Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, co-founders of the Progressive Change Institute. “This will empower regular people in an unprecedented way. We hope this historic event helps makes Open Debates the norm in the future, from state and local races to Congress and all the way up to president."
The Progressive Change Institute is co-sponsoring the debate with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Moderators will include hosts from the online news show "The Young Turks," which is popular among progressives, and from the online news site Independent Journal Review, which is popular with conservatives.
The moderators will draw roughly eight to 10 questions from the top 30 questions submitted by voters in Florida. Floridians, along with people outside the state, can vote on the questions, influencing which are trending on the debate website, where the event will be live streamed. More than 225,000 votes had been cast as of Friday afternoon.
The question leading in the voting was, “Would you vote in favor of a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United?” In second place was, “What will you do in your position to keep Social Security and Medicare strong?” Other top questions ask about breaking up big banks, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, voting and reproductive rights, climate change, the Supreme Court vacancy and prescription drug prices.
“Bottom-up Open Debates unite people across the political spectrum because they are not about right versus left, but new versus old,” said Lilia Tamm, the Open Debate Coalition’s program director. “With modern technology, we can utilize the wisdom of the crowds at FloridaOpenDebate.com to bypass silly questions, gotcha questions, and questions about the news of the week -- and focus on issues voters care about most. We are thrilled to have members of Congress, moderators, and co-hosts from across the political spectrum for this historic Open Debate.”
Mike McCurry, the co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said his organization was keeping an eye on the Open Debate to better understand how the Internet can be used to get “real questions from real people.”
“This is a real opportunity to shape the future of presidential debates, not only in the primaries, but the general election as well,” McCurry said.
Grayson faces Rep. Patrick Murphy in the August Democratic primary for his party's nomination for the seat. Murphy declined to participate in the debate.
On the Republican side, Jolly is hoping to stand out in a field that also includes Rep. Ron DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, developer Carlos Beruff and businessman Todd Wilcox. Jolly's GOP rivals didn't qualify for the debate, which requires participants to have at least 15 percent support in polls.