When Alan Grayson faced off against David Jolly on Monday night in the first debate in the race for the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio, the match-up was unique in a couple of ways.
For one, Grayson, a Democrat, and Jolly, a Republican, haven’t even won their parties’ nominations yet. The primaries aren’t until August—the latest in the country for congressional seats—and there are a handful of other serious candidates in the race. But the more notable twist in Monday’s debate was the questions themselves: They were posted online in advance for all to see, having been determined, for the most part, by more than 400,000 votes from Internet users, including more than 84,000 in Florida.
The format is an experiment developed by the Open Debate Coalition, a bipartisan group that has pushed to make debates both more accessible and more democratic—with a small d—by giving viewers more of a say in what topics the candidates address. Its backers include the Progressive Change Institute on the left and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on the right, and it sprung out of a mutual frustration with presidential primary debates dominated by, in Norquist’s words, “a handful of multimillionaire television personalities” rather than average voters. The goal was to make bottom-up, user-generated questions the centerpiece of a debate, rather than as a small element of a traditional event in which the journalist moderators decide which Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube question they like the best.