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Democracy Dead Zone: Only 300 People Will Hear This SoCal Congressional Debate

It's a growing issue: limited access to debates in California's major races this year. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
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No videotaking, no audio recordings and no photographs.

Those were the rules at a Palmdale Chamber of Commerce debate Thursday night featuring GOP incumbent congressman Steve Knight and his Democratic challenger, Katie Hill.

Even before the doors opened, the event generated controversy.

The chamber said it was not allowing any recording or pictures by either the media or the public.

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The free event will be open to the first 300 people who arrive.

Given the limited and midweek scheduling, relatively few of the voters in the 25th Congressional District covering Lancaster to Simi Valley will get to hear the two candidates explain their stands on the issues.

Typically, political debates are made widely accessible to the public so voters get to know the candidates. They may be videotaped, audio recorded or streamed so those who can't attend in person can see or hear the candidates.

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The Palmdale Chamber of Commerce's step of prohibiting video and audio recordings is unusual.

So why the ban on recording?

CEO Jeanna Huerta says the chamber's 21-member board made the decision back in August. She says allowing people to record events can be distracting.

"It's just, it gets in the way," she said, declining to comment on the details of the discussion that led to the ban. "We decided as a group that that was what we wanted. We did not want recording."

In an email, Knight's campaign said the chamber set the rules -- but he also did not ask they reconsider.

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Hill's campaign did ask to allow recordings.

Thursday night's event was only the second general election debate between Knight and Hill. The first event took place at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 10. That paid event was taped.

A third debate between the two candidates is set for October 13.

Knight, who is seeking a third term, is facing another tough reelection. Once a reliable Republican region, the district has been growing less conservative and more diverse.

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The Cook Report, which evaluates congressional races, ranks the district as a toss-up.

The Palmdale debate is one of the latest examples of the public given limited access to debates in major races. Gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom and John Cox have only one announced debate before the election.

They will appear in a faceoff carried on radio station KQED based in San Francisco on October 8.

There are no scheduled debates between the U.S. Senate candidates, Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein and her Democratic challenger Kevin de León.

In Orange County, Republican congressional incumbent Mimi Walters and Democratic challenger Katie Porter have not yet agreed to a full slate of debates.

Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher has agreed to two debates. Democratic challenger Harley Rouda's campaign has agreed to one of them, although disagrees with the characterization of it as a debate, saying Rouda wants the candidates to meet in venues open to the public. The event that both campaigns have agreed to is a studio interview with Inside OC. That will tape Oct. 15 and be televised. No audience will be present.

The second debate, which Rouda's campaign has not agreed to, is an event at The Pacific Club slated for Nov. 1.

This story has been updated.