A candidate forum is a public event for voters to meet and hear from candidates running for office. Forums can help you accomplish many goals, including educating voters about candidates, creating a space for candidates to express their positions on AAUW issues, and raising visibility for AAUW.
This guide provides some easy tips for hosting a successful candidate forum. And AAUW policy staff is here to help — consider us your resource and sounding board. If you’re not already in touch with AAUW’s Public Policy and Government Relations staff, please e-mail us at VoterEd@aauw.org.
Planning the Forum
- Reach out to diverse organizations.
Working in coalition allows you to reach more people, increase AAUW membership, and gain additional exposure. The extra hands will help you divide the work so you can plan a bigger event, and you can share networks for better publicity. Some of the people other organizations bring in may not be AAUW members, so that’s always a plus! Remember, any new member who joins AAUW at an event open to the public is eligible for a discounted membership through the Shape the Future program. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about this membership recruitment program.
- Schedule the event at a convenient time.
Avoid religious or government holidays, dates when other community functions are scheduled, and business hours.
- Choose an accessible site.
Look for somewhere that will attract a range of women from the community, preferably a well-known and ADA-compliant site such as a local school, community center, or library. Hold forums in a central location in your congressional district or state. Community colleges and local universities are great sites! Contact the AAUW college/university partners in your area, or consider approaching a local institution about becoming an AAUW partner and hosting the event. Once your date, time, and location are confirmed, let us know about your event via the upcoming event form so we can send you materials and help support your activities.
- Set up a check-in table at the front of the event.
Have a few volunteers at this table to greet people as they arrive. Volunteers should check in the attendees on an RSVP list or ask them to sign in. We’ve got a sample sign-in sheet you can use for double duty: It signs people in and gives them the option to sign up for AAUW Action Network so they can receive urgent updates about public policy issues! E-mail VoterEd@aauw.org to request this sign-in sheet.
- Make a pitch for voter registration.
The attendees at your candidate forum are clearly interested in the upcoming election, so take this opportunity to make sure everyone is registered to vote! Set up a voter registration table near the entrance so people can register to vote before and after the event (and remember to recruit volunteers to staff this extra table). The moderator or another speaker can also make a voter registration pitch at the beginning and end of the event. Check out AAUW’s voter registration how-to guide for more tips on voter registration.
Getting People There
- Invite the candidates.
- Invite candidates in writing several weeks in advance. Then call the candidates’ offices and work with their schedulers to agree on a convenient date. AAUW must invite all major-party candidates for the office that is the focus of the forum and must make every effort to treat the candidates in an unbiased manner. For elections to federal offices, the forum can be held only if at least two candidates agree to attend. When holding a debate for elections to municipal or state offices, check your state campaign finance laws to make sure that you are in compliance. For all rules pertaining to candidate forums, please see AAUW policy 302 in the Board of Directors Policy Book. When inviting candidates, send them AAUW issue fact sheets and the AAUW public policy program brochure (available for order online). Ask candidates to limit their remarks to three or four specific issues.
- Arrange for a moderator.
A well-known, nonpartisan moderator who is respected in your community will generate interest in the event and add credibility. The moderator opens the forum by introducing the candidates and issues to be discussed. The candidates then give brief opening statements. The remainder of the forum should be open for questions from the audience. Ask members of AAUW or co-sponsoring organizations to be prepared to ask tough questions of the candidates. The moderator should have a few questions prepared to start the discussion and keep it moving if necessary. To assist the moderator in facilitating the event, designate a volunteer to keep track of time for the moderator.
- Reach out to local media.
Send a media advisory notifying the news media about your event three to five days in advance. Allocate central, unobstructed space close to electrical outlets for TV camera crews and reporters. See How to Work with the Media for a complete discussion of how to earn media coverage for an event.
- Generate an audience.
Inform AAUW members of the event and recruit them to attend. Invite neighboring branches and national members in your area. Spread the word early so that branch public policy chairs can recruit members to attend. Send invitations to college/university partners, coalition partners, and other guests. Last but not least, invite the public! You can find women voters living as close as next door. Post about the event on Facebook and Twitter, and submit an announcement to free community bulletin boards in newspapers and community cable outlets. Contact AAUW’s Department of Public Policy and Government Relations at VoterEd@aauw.org about how we can help you spread the word by e-mail and collect RSVPs online.
After the Event
- Follow up.
Thank the participating candidates with letters or phone calls to promote a good relationship. Be certain to send a letter of appreciation to the moderator. Send a follow-up e-mail to attendees to thank them for coming and offer additional opportunities to get involved, such as attending an upcoming issue forum, volunteering at a voter registration drive, or joining AAUW.
- Tell us about it!
Don’t forget to let us know how your voter registration drive went by filling out this form. Your feedback helps us highlight the best events in AAUW publications and capture AAUW’s nationwide reach.