Re: Administrative Code §3-709.5(1), 3-709.5(5)(b),(c); Op. No. 1997-8
The Board has determined to issue an advisory opinion to determine the following issues: 1) whether under the City's new debate law (New York City Administrative Code §3-709.5), an alternative non-partisan voter education program will take place if only one candidate for the relevant city-wide office is participating in the Campaign Finance Program and required to appear at that forum; and 2) if the alternative program does take place, whether it must be of at least one hour's duration.
The debate law defines a "debate" as the moderated reciprocal discussion of issues among candidates on the ballot for the same office and requires that each debate be at least one hour's duration. See Administrative Code §3-709.5(1), 3-709.5(5)(c). The second general election debate provisions generally call for two forums in which candidates on the ballot may appear before the electorate: (1) a debate limited to the "leading contenders" for the city-wide office, who are determined by the "objective, non-partisan, and non-discriminatory criteria" pre-established by the sponsor pursuant to Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(b)(i); and (2) an alternative non-partisan voter education program among the Campaign Finance 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). All Campaign Finance Program participants who are not deemed "leading contenders" are required to participate in the alternative non-partisan program. Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(c).
Since the law generally intended that all Campaign Finance Program participants on the ballot for the relevant office should have two opportunities to appear before the electorate, the Board previously concluded that an alternative program will be held even if the "leading contenders" debate cannot take place, and any candidate in the Campaign Finance Program who has met the leading contender criteria can participate in the alternative program. See Advisory Opinion No. 1997-7 (July 24, 1997). Similarly, the alternative program will also take place even if the leading contender in the Campaign Finance Program chooses not to appear, so that the alternative program would include only one candidate. To conclude otherwise would give a leading contender the power to decide whether an opposing candidate may make a second appearance under the debate law — a result wholly at odds with the purposes of that law.
Unlike the case for a "debate", the law does not specify a duration requirement for an alternative non-partisan voter education program. The law intended that a "debate" be at least one hour precisely because debate is defined as "a moderated reciprocal discussion of issues among candidates...". A program affording a single candidate an equivalent opportunity to express his or her views simply does not require the same duration as a debate. It is the Board's view that the debate law gives the sponsoring organizations wide discretion to determine both the nature and time for conducting an alternative program in circumstances where only one candidate will appear. Indeed, the law does not preclude the possibility of an alternative program where time is not a factor (e.g., through the use of written materials).
NEW YORK CITY CAMPAIGN FINANCE BOARD