GUIDELINES FOR EFFECTIVE
The League of Women Voters Guidelines
for Nonpartisan Candidate Meetings
Candidate meetings provide a public service. The audience
has an opportunity to see, hear, and question candidates.
The meetings allow candidates to give reasons for wanting
the office they seek and to tell of their qualifications.
Candidate meetings are not a forum for the audience to recommend
action to the candidates. They should however, allow voters
to express their concerns about issues of importance to them
and to solicit suggestions from the candidates for solutions
Nonpartisan candidate meetings present the candidates without
suggesting that any candidate be supported or opposed. Nonpartisan
meetings encourage the voters to make their own decisions
Many of the techniques described here are also applicable
to other public forums and informational meetings.
BE FLEXIBLE! Don't be intimidated by all the information
included in this guide. This is just a collection of tried
and true suggestions. You don't have to use them all; adapt
what works best for your situation.
- Table of Contents:
- Organizing the Meeting
- Publicizing the Meeting
- Conducting the Meeting
- The Moderator
Start early! Planning should begin at least two months
before the election. For complete information about election
dates and filing deadlines, call the county auditor's orfice.
The filing deadline for candidates
is the fourth Monday in July and continues through the following
Friday. Closure on filings, because of drops and party additions
(allowing for opponents to already announced candidates),
occurs the following week. It is at this closure that completed
lists are available.
Candidates for local and county offices file with the county auditor/election
office and candidates for state and national
office file with the Secretary of State. When the final deadline
for filing to run for election has passed, you may request
an unofficial list of candidates and their addresses from
the appropriate election office. Before that time information
may be available from party offices.
To get a list of local candidates:
To find information on state and national
Secretary of State
All sponsors should be involved in every phase of planning
the meeting. Sponsors for a candidates forum should not include
groups that officially rate or endorse candidates.
There are some decisions that need to be made very early.
Stars mark the following items where they appear in more detail
later in this guide.
- Are substitutes or written statements acceptable in place
of candidates unable to attend?
- Will declared write-in candidates be included?
- Should candidates be told in advance what opening question
will be asked?
- Will questions from the audience be directed to one candidate
to save time, or to all candidates to allow the audience
to compare answers?
- Will video or audio recording be allowed?
- Can candidates distribute campaign literature?
- Plan what to do if candidates do not arrive on time.
Who is invited?
The first decision to make in holding a candidate meeting
is whom to invite. All candidates for a particular office
must be included but it is not necessary to include every
office. Candidate meetings held before primary elections may
include only the candidates of one party since all the participants
are vying for the same goal - to be their party's nominee.
The first contact with candidates will be an invitation to
participate. It will probably be by telephone. A letter of
confirmation should follow when all details are in place.
The letter should include the following:
- Date, time and place of proposed meeting.
- Offices to be included.
- Sponsor(s) of meeting.
- A statement that the meeting will be nonpartisan. Emphasize
- Purpose of the meeting - to provide a public service.
- A request for biographical information.
- Format for the meeting, including details of question
- Policy regarding candidate substitutes and possible write-in
- Policy about campaign literature, signs, audio-visual
- Plans for media coverage.
- Date by which a reply is expected.
Make sure a confirmed response is received, in writing or
in person, not just a message on an answering machine. Candidates
have caused problems for meeting sponsors when they claimed
they were not invited to the meeting. Send a certified letter
if necessary to get verification of candidate's receipt of
an invitation. It is suggested that the candidate should again
be contacted and reminded about the event a week beforehand.
If an invited candidate cannot be present, some sponsors allow
a representative of the candidate's campaign to attend. That
representative may be allowed to distribute literature and
read a prepared statement, but may not be allowed to answer
A policy must be set to say whether a candidate may send
a substitute or may submit a written Hi statement if unable
to attend. It does not serve the public to have a candidate
debate an empty chair. Every effort should be made to accommodate
the schedule of the candidates to insure their participation.
If, at the last minute, a candidate is not available, a policy
already set to allow a substitute or to cancel the meeting
will give guidance in proceeding.
A decision must also be made as to write-in candidates. Set
standards to determine if a write-in candidate is running
a bona-fide campaign, or set the policy to exclude ail write-in
candidates. Some criteria to use in determining if a write-in
campaign is serious:
- Is the candidate eligible for the office?
- Does the candidate have a campaign manager?
- Is there a campaign treasurer?
- Is the candidate distributing literature?
When will it be?
An early decision will be the date of the event. Much will
depend upon the community event calendar,
the schedules of the candidates, the availability of a meeting
place, and the time that the media may be willing to attend.
Try for the ideal - early enough to generate interest - yet
late enough so that people?
are ready to consider the candidates. It should not be a
holiday of any kind. It should not coincide with meetings
of political parties, of other organizations that draw large
numbers of people, or an important sport event such as the
World Series. It should not be so late that many people have
already voted by absentee ballot. Schedule the meeting sufficiently
in advance of the election to allow for press coverage after
the meeting. This coverage can be one of the most valuable
assets of the meeting because it provides some information
for those who did not attend.
Where will it be?
Reserve the meeting place as soon as possible. Consider the
size, convenience, facilities, rental fee. parking, access
to equipment for refreshments, and whether it is handicapped
accessible. Be sure to check the lighting and sound system.
Arrange for admission before the scheduled time of the event
to check the sound equipment, lights, and platform setup.
What will be happening?
The number of candidates will often decide the format for
the meeting. The optimum time for a candidate meeting is about
one and one-half hours.
The basic form is short individual speeches of two
to five minutes followed by questions from the audience, usually
with one to two minutes for a closing speech by each candidate.
A discussion format has a panel or moderator asking
questions of candidates. Candidates may be given time to make
a statement, and questions may come from the floor.
Panels asking questions should include those with some background
pertinent to the office. For example, a panel questioning
school board candidates might include a teacher, a parent,
a student or recent graduate. The panels decide the questions
to ask and the order in which the questions are answered by
the candidates. Plans must be set as to time limits and candidates
must know the limits.
A debate is particularly good when there are fewer
candidates. Each candidate must have an equal amount of time
for an opening and closing statement. Between the statements,
the candidates can refute each others' opening statement or
answer questions from the floor, from a panel, or from the
A timed script is necessary to insure that all candidates
have the same opportunity to express themselves. Remember,
the formal part of the meeting should last no more than an
hour and a half Once the number of candidates and the format
have been decided, the time can be divided to allow each candidate
a limited amount of time to make a statement or answer a question.
Each candidate must know the procedure and agree to it.
More informal candidate meetings can be held when
the audience is divided to meet with candidates. For example,
the audience may sit at tables and the candidates rotate,
spending a limited amount of time talking with each group.
Questions for the candidates
Good questions at the start of the meeting can help to focus
on issues of importance to the audience. The potential audience
can be polled for questions before the candidate meeting.
Questions can be requested in meeting notices and in community
newspapers. A committee can prepare the questions to avoid
duplications and insure suitability. These questions could
be placed in envelopes, identified only by number. At the
candidate meeting the candidates can draw a number that determines
their order of speaking and the question they will initially
Candidates will want to know the questions before the meeting.
The organizers must decide whether to test the ability of
the candidates to think on their feet or allow them time to
develop a topic in depth. The latter method risks their use
of a speech writer and of research done by others.
Some decisions need to be made about the audience question
period. The question period after statements by the candidates
can be the most interesting part of the meeting When there
are many candidates, consider cutting the time for opening
and closing statements or eliminate statements altogether
to preserve time for questions.
The moderator could have a few prepared questions to start
so that time will not be lost as the questions are submitted
by the audience.
To preserve time for the candidates to speak and to avoid
repetition, written questions are preferred. A panel or screening
committee, can review the questions as they are collected
from the audience to prevent repetition and to insure that
the questions are appropriate to the office
Will each candidate have an opportunity to answer each question
from the audience or can questions be directed to a single
Good topics for candidates for state office are education;
environment; taxes; highways and public transportation; health
and welfare; and problems of the elderly, disadvantaged, and
youth. Many of these same topics could be discussed by candidates
for city or county offices. Candidates for school boards have
a more limited field. In addition to the perennial question
of money, their opinions on state and/or federal aid, personnel
policies, curriculum, collective bargaining, fitness and recreation
programs, libraries, building programs, outcome based education,
and busing are relevant.
Judicial candidates are seldom included in a candidate meeting
because the conduct of their campaigns is governed by a code
of judicial conduct, which greatly restricts what they can
talk about. The most important point to remember in developing
questions for judicial candidates is that they should not
be asked to express an opinion about issues that they may
later be asked to rule upon as judge. It is proper, though,
to ask what experience qualifies them to serve; if they are
endorsed by the local Bar; if any of their legal papers have
been published; what community involvement they've had; how
judges should be selected.
Other issues of concern
Seating arrangements for the candidates must be decided before
the event. The candidates can be seated alphabetically, by
political party, by legislative district, or any manner mutually
Some candidates are concerned that their statements will
be recorded and later quoted out of context. During the planning
a policy should be decided about video and audio recording
of the candidate meeting and all candidates should agree to
the policy. If no individual recording is permitted, the moderator
must tell the audience; and ushers or someone from the planning
committee must enforce the decision. Candidates will probably
not object to the media recording their statements but this
should be discussed with them and made part of the final policy.
A decision about campaign literature must also be made and
shared with the candidates. If distribution is allowed, arrangements
should be made to do so in a manner that does not suggest
the meeting sponsors support any particular candidates (for
example, handing out literature at the door). A table can
be made available in the back of the room for each candidate
to leave their literature. Each candidate should have a table
or a designated space. One candidate may otherwise take all
the available area.
Consider the possibility that the candidates may not all
arrive on time for the meeting. How will the event proceed?
How long will the meeting be delayed? Discussion of this possibility
will provide guidance for the candidates and the meeting organizers.
Again, all decisions are shared with the candidates during
the planning process.
If refreshments are planned, decide what will be served and
who will be responsible. Decaffeinated coffee is recommended
for evening meetings. Allow at least one hour to prepare.
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Publicizing the Meeting
Conducting a candidate meeting with another service organization
is a good way to generate more audience. Besides the League
of Women Voters, other organizations might include local service
organizations, American Association of University Women (AAUW),
Chambers of Commerce. American Association of Retired Persons
(AARP), or college or university student groups, etc. An early
start in planning how to share responsibilities helps guarantee
success. Cooperating groups should be in on all decision making
and agree to respect the nonpartisan nature of the candidate
Local newspapers are most interested in local elections.
Many are weekly papers and notices must reach them three weeks
before the event to be published in time. A press release,
stating the candidates invited, date, time, place, and format,
should be sent as early as possible.
Nonprofit organizations that work to improve the community
through various kinds of service are eligible to place a Public
Service Announcement (PSA) with radio and television stations.
Contact the station s public service director or program manager
for advice as to length and form. Be sure to contact the local
cable television company to learn if the event can be carried
on the local cable public access channel.
Building interest for the event depends upon getting the
word out. Have the meeting listed on school and community
calendars and bulletin boards. Ask banks and shopping centers
with lighted signs to post the meeting. Notify any colleges
or universities in the area and invite the students and faculty,
particularly those in the political science department. Invite
teachers from the local high school and ask them to extend
the invitation to their government classes. Flyers distributed
to members of the sponsoring organizations can include a `'ticket"
to be clipped and used as a reminder to attend the event.
With permission from the art department of schools, try a
poster contest. This will generate posters, possibly press
coverage, and get word to students and their parents.
Have Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts for ushers. Invite the school
glee club, orchestra, or band to open and/or close the candidate
meeting. (This may have a side effect of bringing their parents
out to hear the candidates.)
Immediately before the meeting, call any media you think
are interested and remind the editors or reporters of the
Information submitted by the candidates to the meeting organizers
about the candidates experience or qualifications can be made
available to both the audience and the media. Combined with
the candidate meeting agenda, the candidate biographical information
makes an appropriate program for the event.
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Conducting the Meeting
Organizers should arrive early to post any signs necessary
to direct audience to meeting place. Bring tape, poster cards
or paper, marking pens.
To avoid last minute confusion, you should consider:
An agenda for the meeting tells the audience what to expect.
It should include a written
description of the office the candidate seeks including term,
salary, duties, and requirements.
Biographical information submitted by the candidates may
also be included.
Candidates should be met on arrival. Have large name tags
for candidates listing name, party, and
the office for which they are running. Introduce the candidates
to the officers of the
organization(s) sponsoring the event and to the moderator.
Ushers help with seating, distribute programs, pencils and
cards for questions, and collect question
cards from the audience to give to the screening committee.
¥ SOUND/LIGHT TECHNICIAN
The microphones must be in good working order and should
be checked before the meeting. If there are several candidates,
the microphones should be placed among the candidates so as
to avoid long delays. Try to have candidates remain seated
and not have to walk to the podium each time to answer questions.
Lights need to be focused on the candidates and moderator
but also sufficient for audience participation.
A dependable timekeeper equipped with a stop watch, flash
cards, and a bell or signal light is a key person at a candidate
meeting. Accurate time keeping is necessary to be fair to
all candidates. Before the meeting starts, the moderator and
timekeeper should agree on how they will handle any interruptions.
The timekeeper should be readily visible to the moderator
and the candidates but not block the audience view or be unduly
distracting. Sometimes the speaker is given a warning signal
a few seconds before running out of time so as to end on time.
Example: green, yellow, and red cards used like traffic signals.
¥ QUESTION SCREENING COMMITTEE
The panel should include representatives of all sponsoring
organizations. Persons familiar with the duties and scope
of the office(s) that the candidates seek can best judge the
relevance of the questions. A backstage facility for the screening
committee is desirable. (See screening committee worksheet
for additional suggestions.)
Pencils, paper, gavel, water, cups and chairs should all
be arranged on the platform. If a table is
used, it is more attractive if the front is covered to the
floor. Each candidate should be identified by
a large print place card.
¥ PUBLIC RELATIONS
A person designated as liaison for radio/TV/press should
welcome the reporters, find them good seats (if they are expected,
some seats should be reserved), and remind the reporters that
the organizers are not supporting any one candidate and that
all running have been invited.
A list should be on hand to check off as candidates arrive.
The letters candidates return to the meeting organizers should
also be on hand to indicate that all have been invited.
Valuable exhibits at candidate meetings are precinct maps
with location of polling places and sample ballots. Sample
ballots are available from Division of Records and Elections
about three weeks before the election. Precinct descriptions
and lists of polling places are also available from the same
These can be served at any time; however, waiting until the
end of the meeting allows the audience
an opportunity to mix informally and talk with the candidates.
¥ OPENING THE MEETING
The president of (one of) the sponsoring organization(s)
opens the meeting by welcoming the audience, stating that
the meeting is nonpartisan and introducing the moderator.
If the order of speakers has not yet been determined, the
president and moderator make the decision. It can be alphabetically,
by toss of a coin, drawing a number out of a hat, choosing
from different length straws, etc.
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A well-qualified moderator is essential for a successful
candidate meeting. Look for a poised and assertive individual
who can maintain control over the meeting's progress without
stifling audience and candidate participation. The person
must be impartial. The role of the moderator is essential;
an alternate should be designated in advance to be ready in
event of illness.
At least a week before the meeting the moderator should have
in writings the location of the meeting and directions, a
script, the names of meeting organizers, ground rules, offices
and candidates to be included, and any prepared questions.
The moderator also needs to have a description of the offices
that the candidates seek including term, salary, duties, and
qualification. A short biography of each candidate may be
needed for introductions.
If a ballot issue is likely to be discussed at the meeting,
the moderator should have a written explanation of the issue.
Before the meeting the moderator and meeting organizers should
check the signed acceptances submitted by candidates and resolve
any last minute problems that may arise regarding a candidate's
participation. The moderator will also want to check his or
her own microphone and seating arrangement so as to have good
eye contact with the candidates, the timekeeper, and the audience.
When introduced, the moderator outlines the format and ground
nobles for the meeting emphasizing that the purpose of the
meeting is to hear each candidate's views. The moderator then
introduces the candidates for the first office on the program,
gives a few details about the office. term, salary, and qualifications
(if not included in the program), and notes if the incumbent
is present All candidates for a given office should be introduced
before individual speeches begin.
Once a candidate has begun to speak, the moderator should
not interrupt unless the remarks constitute a personal attack
on an opponent or the timekeeper gives a cut-off signal.
After all candidates, or all candidates for a particular
office, have spoken, the moderator opens the meeting to questions
Mom the audience and explains the procedure. If questions
are addressed to the candidates in general, the order of responders
rotates and the moderator should write down the rotation to
insure accuracy and fairness. The timekeeper should signal
the candidates as appropriate.
At the appointed time, the moderator closes the meeting,
thanks all for attending and reminds the audience of the hours
when polls are open. (See moderator's worksheet or additional
Thank you notes should be sent to all candidates who attend.
This material is adapted from a publication of the Allegheny
(Pennsylvania) County Council of the League of Women Voters. Revised
and prepared for distribution by the League of Women Voters
of King County South, PO Box 66037, Seattle, WA 98166, (206)
243-7161. Printing made possible be the League of Women Voters
of Seattle Education Fund.