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1997-7: Second General Election Debate Criteria

Thursday, July 24, 1997

Re: Administrative Code §3-709.5(3), (5) (b), (c); Op. No. 1997-7.

The Campaign Finance Board has determined to issue an advisory opinion to clarify the requirements for a second general election debate under the City's new debate law when only one candidate for the relevant city-wide office meets the "objective, non-partisan, and non-discriminatory criteria" pre-established by the sponsor pursuant to New York City Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(b)(i), for determining which candidates are "the leading contenders."

Administrative Code §3-709.5 provides that candidates for mayor, public advocate, and comptroller who have joined the New York City Campaign Finance Program ("Program participants"), are required to participate in two pre-election debates for each primary, runoff primary, and general election in which they are on the ballot. The Board selects sponsors for the debates for each election. Administrative Code §3-709.5(3).

In the case of the general election, a distinction is drawn between the first and second debate. The first general election debate includes all Program participants on the ballot, as is also the case for all the primary election debates. The second general election debate provisions generally call for two forums: (1) a debate limited to the "leading contenders" for the city-wide office, who are determined according to the criteria described above; and (2) an alternative non-partisan voter education program among the Program participants on the ballot for the office who do not meet the criteria for leading contenders. Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(b), (c). Clearly, this bifurcated structure was intended to give the voters at least one focused debate limited to the leading contenders for the office who emerge following the first general election debate, while also assuring that all other Program participants on the ballot for the relevant office will have a second opportunity to appear before the electorate.

When only one candidate (or none) has met the leading contenders criteria, however, the legislative purpose for this bifurcation is defeated. Because the leading contenders debate is clearly intended to include at least two candidates, this debate simply cannot take place when the application of the pre-established criteria has resulted in the identification of no or only one leading contender(s)1.

The alternative non-partisan forum, however, remains a requirement for all Program participants "not deemed leading contenders," Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(c), and will be held among these non-leading contender Program participants even if the leading contenders debate cannot take place. Although the debate law is explicit in requiring a Program participant who meets the leading contender criteria to participate in a leading contenders debate and not in the alternate forum, nothing in the debate law appears to preclude this candidate from joining in the alternative forum in the event that a leading contenders debate cannot take place. Indeed, in such circumstances, it is clear that the goals of the debate law would best be served by permitting a Program participant who has met the leading contender criteria to appear at his or her option at the alternative forum with the other Program participants on the ballot for the same office.

NEW YORK CITY CAMPAIGN FINANCE BOARD

1The circumstances in which a "single candidate debate" will be held under the debate law are narrowly described and are inapplicable to the question addressed by this advisory opinion. See Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(b)(ii)(a single candidate debate takes place only when an invited candidate who is not a Program participant refuses to appear for the leading contenders general election debate or a runoff election debate.) See also Advisory Opinion No. 1997-5 (June 12, 1997) (primary debate is not required when only one Program participant is in the primary election.)