Tips for Conducting Candidate Forums
Like all church civic responsibility activities, candidate forums must be scrupulously non-partisan. Several guidelines should be followed. Invite all candidates and treat them alike: This includes invitation and follow-up, the information you provide in advance, the questions they are asked, and the opportunities they have to respond.
Do not intervene, directly or indirectly, in the campaign on behalf of a particular candidate or party: Nothing that you do at the forum can show preference for one candidate over another. Your moderator must be unbiased. You will want to prepare in advance carefully worded questions on a wide range of issues. If you include questions from the audience, have the questions written on index cards and screened before being read by the moderator.
Cover a broad range of issues: Focusing on one issue will create the appearance of endorsing some candidates over others. A broader focus will more effectively educate voters and will avoid any appearance of bias. You may want to use as guidelines “Goals for the Campaign,” included in the Faithful Citizenship statement.
The USCCB Office of General Counsel has issued a memorandum detailing appropriate and legal activities for Catholic institutions during the election process. For information, consult your diocesan attorney. The memorandum can be found here.
Careful advance planning will ensure the success of your candidate forum. Remember that candidates are campaigning to get elected. In order to accept your invitation to appear at a forum, they must feel that the event is worthwhile and that they will be able to address a significant number of people. Therefore, plan carefully, and don’t promise more than you can deliver. The following are factors you’ll want to consider.
Collaboration: Broadening your sponsorship can increase attendance and create wider ownership. What other groups or diocesan offices might want to be involved—other parishes or nearby churches? Catholic Charities? diocesan Pro-life Offices for Social Action? Migration Services? Others? It is important to discuss the ground rules for the forum early in the process of identifying partners so that everyone agrees.
Focus: Will you invite candidates for local office, for state office, or for Congress? While you may want to invite a combination, consider whether you’ll have enough time for a thoughtful discussion on two or more sets of issues. Remember that candidates for local office will be more likely to accept your invitation than state-wide or national candidates.
Timing: Start planning well in advance so that you are able to choose the best time for your forum and avoid conflicts on your diocesan and parish calendars.
Turnout strategy: A candidate forum with a small audience will do more harm than good in establishing your credibility. Plan your turnout strategy well ahead and be realistic about your ability to bring out a crowd so that you don’t promise more than you can deliver. Think about the networks you can mobilize in your parish, in other parishes or churches, and in the diocese—the parish social concerns committee, small faith communities, and the parish council are just some of the possibilities. If your diocese has a legislative network, can parish leaders from other parishes commit to bringing a certain number of people? If your diocese has a peace and justice commission, can each member take responsibility for bringing people? If the forum is being sponsored by other groups or diocesan offices, can they bring people from their parishes and from their networks?
Site: Choose a centrally located site that is easy to get to. The site should also be an appropriate size for the number of people you expect—for example, an auditorium that is too large will make your crowd appear smaller than it is. Make sure the site has appropriate sound equipment, lighting, and parking.
Format: The format of your candidate forum will play a significant role in ensuring that it remains non-partisan. Several points are important to remember.
1. Give equal treatment to all candidates. Use an unbiased means to determine speaking order (e.g., drawing straws, alphabetical order), and give each speaker the same amount of time. Designate a timekeeper who will signal the speaker when his/her time is up. Be clear about time limits with the candidates before the event starts, and stick strictly to the limits so no one gets shortchanged.
2. Cover a wide range of issues in your questions. You may want to use as guidelines “Goals for the Campaign,” included in Faithful Citizenship. Choose a moderator who will ask the questions and make sure that person uses the same wording for each candidate. If you want to take questions from the audience, give people index cards to write them on so their questions can be screened before they are asked.
3. Do not allow candidates to distribute campaign literature during the forum. Let them know ahead of time if you will provide a table at the back where all campaign literature can be displayed.
4. Make sure someone arrives at the site early on the day of the forum to see that the room is set up and that the light and sound systems are working.
Invitations: Begin by calling each candidate’s campaign headquarters. (If you can’t find the numbers, call your local newspapers.) Note the name of the person you speak with for follow-up purposes. Provide the date, time, and probable audience for the event (don’t exaggerate the numbers), and outline the format. Once you’ve gotten an agreement to attend (which may take several calls), confirm the commitment with a letter that details the format. It’s also wise to place a reminder call a day or two before the forum.
Leaders: Identify leaders for several roles, including moderator, timekeeper, greeters (for the candidates and others), and publicity coordinators.
Media Coverage: The best media strategy will target both your diocesan newspaper and the local secular media. Personally contact your diocesan newspaper editor about running an announcement of the forum for several weeks in advance, and suggest sending a reporter to the event.
Often local newspapers and cable services offer community bulletin boards where you can publicize the forum. This can’t hurt, but your leaders should understand that this type of publicity will produce only a handful of people and can never substitute for their efforts to work with their parishes and organizations to maximize turnout. A press release, along with calls to local newspaper, radio, and television reporters (especially if you’ve already built a relationship with them), can result in solid coverage of the forum.
Candidate forums can provide a very helpful source of information about candidates for parishioners and others in the community. They have been sponsored very successfully by dioceses and parishes across the country. However, it is important to fully understand the limitations and ground rules on these activities. Be sure to contact your diocesan attorney and state Catholic conference director before planning your forum. It is also important to read the guidelines offered by the USCCB General Counsel. The complete text of a memorandum from the USCCB General Counsel regarding 501(c)(3) organizations and political activity can be obtained here.