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1997-5: Primary Election Debate Not Required When There Is Only One Participating Candidate

June 12, 1997

Re: Administrative Code § 3-709.5(1), (2), (5)(b)(ii), (8), (11); Op. No. 1997-5

The Board has determined to issue an advisory opinion to clarify whether a primary election debate will be required under the recently adopted debate law if only one candidate in the primary election is participating in the New York City Campaign Finance Program1. In accordance with the new law, candidates for the offices of mayor, public advocate, and comptroller who appear on the primary election ballot and participate in the Campaign Finance Program must participate in two debates prior to the primary election2. New York City Administrative Code §3-709.5(1). The law makes no provision for including in these debates candidates who appear on the primary election ballot but have not joined the Campaign Finance Program.

The language of the debate law leads to the conclusion that a primary election debate is not required when only one candidate in the primary election is participating in the Campaign Finance Program. A "debate" is described as a forum that includes more than one candidate. See Administrative Code §3-709.5(2) ("moderated reciprocal discussion among candidates on the ballot for the same office"). Other sections of the debate law reinforce the conclusion that each primary debate must include more than one candidate in the Program. See Administrative Code § 3-709.5(1) ("in the case of a primary, the debate shall be among participating candidates seeking nomination of the same political party") (emphasis added); Administrative Code § 3-709.5(8) ("for the two primary debates and the first general election debate, the board shall provide each debate sponsor it has selected with a list of candidates who are required to participate in such debates") (emphasis added). This conclusion is also supported by the fact that when a "single candidate debate" is to be held — in the case of the second general election debate and runoff primary election debates — the law states this explicitly. See Administrative Code § 3-709.5(5)(b)(ii)3.

The Board notes that while a primary debate would not be required in the circumstances discussed in this opinion, nothing in the law precludes candidates, whether or not they are participating in the Campaign Finance Program, from agreeing to debate. Administrative Code §3-709.5(11). Such a debate would not, however, be subject to the provisions of the debate law.


1 The conclusions reached in this advisory opinion also apply to the first general election debate held for an office under the debate law, but not to the second general election debate or runoff primary election debates because the debate law specifically states that candidates who are not participating in the Campaign Finance Program may be included in those debates. See Administrative Code §3-709.5(5)(b)(ii).

2 The standards for whether a candidate is considered to be on the ballot for purposes of the debate law are addressed in Advisory Opinion No. 1997-3 (May 15, 1997). The Board also notes that it would not consider a candidate to be on the ballot if the petitions filed naming the candidates are not "presumptively valid" under New York Election Law §6-154.

3Administrative Code §3-709.5(1) states, "if there is no contested primary for an office in a political party then no debate for the party's nomination shall be held pursuant to" the debate law. While this could be interpreted as stating the exclusive circumstance in which a primary debate would not be held, on balance the provisions noted above militate against such an interpretation.