Candidate "speed dating" in action., Abby Nick

Many of us are already looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, and there’s no denying its importance. But local 2023 elections should not be overlooked. 

Later this year many cities and towns in Connecticut will be electing local leaders who will have a major impact on the future of our state and on our own lives. To help us make an informed decision on who to vote for, candidate debates will be organized in many towns.

But often at these events, the emphasis is on politics and not on substantive issues.

In the typical approach, a moderator poses questions to candidates, each of whom is given a couple of minutes to respond and perhaps another couple of minutes to rebut what other candidates have said. Over the years, candidates have learned how to use this format to their advantage. Rather than address issues, they often will use sound bites and make statements designed to appeal to the emotions of voters and to put their opponents in a negative light.

2023 Community Editorial Board CEB Thumbnail

In other words, debates are about winners and losers, and local residents looking for answers to their questions so they can make the best choice when they cast their vote often feel let down. Having organized many of these events over the years, I have often observed attendees walk away disappointed that they did not receive the information they hoped would help them make the best choice on Election Day.

However, there is another approach.

The Hartford Votes~Hartford Vota Coalition was formed 20 years ago, and has organized dozens of candidate events over the years. Our experiences have led us to no longer use the word “debate” as this does not reflect our goal.

The coalition often uses a different approach for our candidate events – one we refer to informally as “speed dating.”

The audience sits in small groups of perhaps a dozen or so people each, and individual candidates rotate around to the different tables. Someone acts as a timekeeper and every 10 to 12 minutes rings a bell, at which point the candidates shift to the next table. Usually each table has someone who acts as a facilitator. Their job is to ensure that no one dominates and that as many people as possible have a chance to ask questions. The facilitator also tries to keep the candidates on track.

Richard Frieder Yehyun Kim

This speed dating rotation may be supplemented by allowing each candidate to make a brief opening statement to the entire room, and/or giving them an opportunity to make a short closing statement.

While not perfect, this approach generally results in attendees feeling more satisfied because they often feel they have been heard and have had the opportunity to interact directly with candidates. 

In talking with attendees after a recent candidate event in which the “speed dating” format was used, most were very enthusiastic and appreciated having the opportunity to talk directly with candidates and get answers to their questions. 

“I think this is a very effective approach because it minimizes theatrics and superficial responses from candidates and hones in on getting in-depth answers,” one participant said. Many attendees also appreciate the opportunity to get to know a little about the candidates as people.

Most candidates also like this approach. In talking with several candidates after a recent event they all felt the speed dating approach was a great way to hear from a relatively large number of people, and listen and respond to their questions. One said his goal is to get his message out and this format is an excellent way to do that.  

Some candidates continue to say they prefer events at which they can interact with each other, and one was interested in an actual debate with other candidates.  While we appreciate this perspective, our events are geared towards maximizing the value of the experience to potential voters.

Even more important, we believe that as a result of this experience people are actually more likely to vote because of the personal connection they make with candidates at these events. 

Organizing a candidate event using the speed dating approach is no more difficult than using the more typical approach. It’s just different. It works best when there are several candidates, but can be adapted for use even when there are fewer candidates.  

So as you and your neighbors prepare yourselves to make the important choices that are coming up in the 2023 election, consider organizing one of these events or talk with local organizations that often do this kind of work and tell them you want something different than the usual approach. 

You will find, as we have, that by thinking differently about how to help Connecticut residents get ready to exercise their right to vote, you will be making an important contribution to the democratic process.

Richard Freider is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.