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Why should we organize a political debate? What are the pitfalls to avoid? And how should we approach its organisation, in practice?
I'm far from an expert, but here are some suggestions.
The first advantage of a political debate is that it stimulates voter's interest. The nicest democracy in the world is doomed to dissappear if citizens don't care about it. And in Canada these days, participation rates at elections are trending downward in a scary way, and the trend seems unfortunately stable.
The second major advantage of a political debate is that it educates voters quickly and completely. Indeed, a good political debate allows voters to assess all candidates:
- Intellectually: Are they aware of all of our country's worst problems? Do they have realistic solutions to propose? Are they able to summarize their thoughts and express them clearly?
- Morally: Are they courteous during the verbal fight? (If they can't govern their mouth and their emotions during a little debate, how could they govern a whole country? If they behave as if the other candidates are their enemies, instead of a party of climbers roped together thanks to their love of the Common Good, how will they be able to work as a team in Parliament?)
The first pitfall to avoid is electoral fraud: Not inviting all candidates. The people have requested to have all the choices on the menu, it's not the organizer's job to censor that menu.
A second very frequent pitfall these days is the pseudo-debate which is in fact a beauty contest. (Candidates cannot debate among each other as such.) This prevents the intellectual and moral assessment of candidates. Indeed, a candidate can lie through his teeth, since the other candidates cannot confront him to his lie. Moreover, candidates don't have to prove that they are able to govern themselves in the heat of battle, since there is no "heat of battle"!
A few snippets which seem to make sense:
4.1) Invite all candidates. Given the tight schedules during an election campaign, there should be limits, such as: All candidates must be invited in advance, with the word "advance" defined as one third of the total duration of the election campaign.
4.2) Publicize the debate as early as possible. Ideally, the Chief Electoral Officer would add to the web page of each constituency a "Debates" section, which would give dates and places for all the real debates.
4.3) Allow everyone to prepare for the questions. I like the "potluck" format. Each candidate contributes a question. (This question is chosen to make that candidate look good and all the other candidates look bad, that's fair play!) All the questions are posted in advance on the Internet. An other advantage of that format is organizer's don't have to rack their brains to find questions, even though it's probably a good idea if they contribute one question to give a "local touch" to the debate.
4.4) Organize the debate materially. Large room, enough chairs, bathrooms, security (many easily accessible exits, smoke detectors, etc.), access for handicapped, sound system, lecterns or table so that candidates can have pencil and paper and bottle of water, etc.
4.5) Moderator. Someone must be appointed to give the right to speak. Maybe a magnetic board with cards on which the names of the candidates are written? (Big enough so that the spectators can see it.) One draws at random the cartons, by sticking them on the board, to establish at random the order in which they speak. That order can be re-drawn at regular intervals during the debate, to avoid having always the same one that starts, etc.
Which algorithm to recognize speakers? I guess:
- If no one raises his hand, the next on the magnetic board;
- If several people raise their hands at the same time, the first hand raised on the magnetic board;
- If a candidate wants to ask a question to another candidate, then this other candidate speaks the next;
- After speaking, a candidate sees his name put on the bottom of the magnetic board. In other words, he is sent to the back of the queue.
4.6) The timekeeper. A person must have a stopwatch to record how long each candidate talks. Each candidate begins the debate with a "bank of minutes". A candidate can intervene as long as he wants, as often as the moderator recognizes him, but when he has exhausted his minutes, he must be quiet for the rest of the debate. It's up to him to wisely manage his time, as he will wisely manage the taxpayer's money, if he's elected! (I also recommend that each candidate have their smartphone in "timer" mode, to help the timekeeper in case of error.)
4.7) The "microphone-holder". It is remarkably easy to have a single microphone, with a long cable, and a person who serves as a microphone-holder. This facilitates the moderator's life (he can better manage whose turn it is to speak, as well as that of the timekeeper (there are necessarily small breaks while the microphone goes from one candidate to another). I do not want to be stupid and mean, but maybe it would be good for candidates not to be allowed to touch the microphone, so touching the microphone would lead to a "Yellow Card" for that candidate.
4.8) Make all the spectators vote at the beginning. After a debate, the first question is "Who won?" It seems appropriate to have all the spectators vote before and after the debate. In addition, starting by a vote means the spectators can do something while waiting for the official start of the debate, while setting the mood ("Sparks are going to fly!").
4.9) Start by going around the table. I am against pseudo-debates, but a "mini beauty contest" before starting the actual debate seems quite appropriate.
4.10) Have the actual debate. Finally! We let the candidates show us who is the best! Like a good hockey referee, the Moderator must let the players play, intervening as little as possible. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, after Original Sin, it may be necessary for the Moderator to show "Yellow Cards" or even a "Red Card".
4.11) End with the second vote, and personal encounters. We must be able to shake hands with candidates in our riding. In a representative democracy, you have to get to know those who represent us in Parliament. The spectators' post-debate vote combines well with the personal meetings.
Personally, I still admire that little girl in High School who had organized a debate between all candidates in Louis-Hebert in 2006. She had simply picked up the phone, called all candidates, reserved a room in her school (after classes), and found one microphone. Yes, a single microphone that we passed from one candidate to the other! Such a debate costs pretty well nothing to organize. (Strictly speaking, unfortunately, that poor little girl organized a beauty contest and not a debate, but none of her teachers told her about that common error).
A vote that has not been preceeded by good debates isn't a vote, but a hallucinogenic drug. Such a pseudo-vote becomes a "social drug" which numbs out citizens, so they won't feel the knife of tyranny slowly perforating their democracy.
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