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MA Democratic Primary Candidates To Participate In Crowdsourced Online Debate

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, August 6 2013

The five Democrats running for Sen. Ed Markey's House seat will participate in an streamed online Q&A with voters Saturday

Five Democrats who are running to fill an open seat in the Fifth District of Massachusetts will participate in a novel interactive online debate format this Saturday, thanks to the efforts of a progressive group that's been pushing to change the passive broadcast format of televised political debates for the past six years.

The five Democrats are running to fill Democratic Senator Ed Markey's old seat in Massachusetts, an area that encompasses the suburbs to the north and west of Boston. They'll be participating in a debate format that will include live questions from Massachusetts residents whose questions had been submitted online and voted up Reddit-style. Adam Green and Stephanie Taylor, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the organizers of the event, will moderate, and they'll invite those whose questions received the most votes to participate.

The group launched its site OpenDebateQuestions.com on Tuesday. It is inviting residents of the Fifth Congressional District to submit their own questions to the candidates, and to vote on the importance of others. The debate will take place at 11 a.m. Eastern time this Saturday online at OpenDebateQuestions.com. The group hasn't decided yet what platform to use, but it'll be somewhat like a Google Hangout in that it will involve live interactions between the House candidates, the moderators and the voters themselves, Green said in an interview.

The Democratic candidates -- State Sens. William Brownsberger, Katherine Clark, Karen Spilka, State Rep. Carl Sciortino, and Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian -- are competing in a primary scheduled for October 15th. The winner will go on to run against the Republican candidate in a general election scheduled for December 10th.

The PCCC has high hopes for the event. Green and Taylor hope that it will pioneer a new format for political debates all over the country.

"This is much bigger than Massachusetts," Green said. "Our hope is that if this is successful, then open debates will become the norm for local, state, and Congressional races, and even presidential debates in the future."

The PCCC has been part of a larger movement in politics that's been pushing for more direct voter participation in political debates. Personal Democracy Media has been part of that movement by creating the 10 Questions platform, whereby voters submit questions via online video to candidates. The platform encouraged the online community to vote on their favorite questions, the most popular of which were then presented to the candidates during televised debates, or online. After the candidates answered, voters were then asked to rate the quality of their answers. Five presidential candidates -- Barack Obama, Ron Paul, a Republican Congressman from Texas, Mike Huckabee, Arkansas' former Republican governor, Mitt Romney and John Edwards participated in the project in 2007. Questions submitted by the public through 10 Questions were also included in the televised debates in a Georgia House race in 2010, as well as the race for California's Governor in 2010.

The whole idea behind the movement is that emerging video and online technologies can now enable a more direct and authentic discussion between political candidates and voters. Major media outlets, however, in the past, have only adopted tepid experiments with the new technologies, due to worries over gamesmanship and a skewing of the questions toward niche concerns.

Green noted that OpenDebateQuestions.com, for its part, has received more than 700 questions, and so far they've been pretty down-to-earth. For example, the most popular question as of Tuesday afternoon is where the candidates stand on overturning the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, a case in which the court decided that the First Amendment restricts the commission from placing limits on independent political expenditures by corporations, labor unions, and associations. The only problem with that question under OpenDebateQuestions.co's rules is that it came from someone in Montana, and thus not qualified to participate in the discussion. Green writes in: "We'll be asking the top questions from anywhere that are voted on by Massachusetts residents."

Other top questions focus on the candidates' positions on the future of social security and Medicare benefits, meting out punishments for errant bankers, financial industry regulation and energy production.