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Some civics groups turn to digital forums, debates, as candidates switch gears toward phone banking, digital ads

Candidates across Oregon continue to get their message out ahead of Oregon's May 19 election.

Some civics groups are working overtime to offer political debates and forums, even while abiding by statewide laws that prevent public gatherings.

Holding public debates and forums have long been a significant way for voters to get to know the candidates of particular races. Still, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the country, many states are having to do without and, in some cases, delay elections altogether.

That's not the case in Oregon, which has used a vote-by-mail system for decades. However, giving voters a chance to speak with candidates during times of self-isolation and quarantine is still a major problem.

The Washington County Public Affairs Forum, a nonprofit organization that has long held political debates and forums for candidates in Washington County, canceled all of its forums last month after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown put limits on public gatherings. The forum canceled a debate between Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett and his challenger, Sgt. Red Wortham. It also canceled candidates forums county commissioners, legislative districts, local judgeships, and other races voters will decide on next month.

"As we approach May, we will be in touch again about possible forums in May and June," the forum's board of directors wrote in a newsletter to members in mid-March. "We will be closely watching the progress of COVID-19 and only begin meeting again when it is safe."

Other organizations have taken a different approach. The City Club of Portland has opted to go ahead with its debates and political forums by streaming them online.

"We really see this as our duty to keep providing this programming," said Erin Haley, City Club's marketing and communications manager. "From the beginning, even before Gov. Brown put down the restrictions, we said, 'This is coming, but we can't let democracy slow down.'"

City Club is hosting a handful of debates and forums online each Friday, including candidates for Portland City Council, Metro, as well as local ballot measures. The streaming services are free and open to anyone to watch, Haley said.

"We can't stop, and we won't stop," she said. "It's more important than ever for people to be paying attention."

Campaigning for office is a difficult job during the best of circumstances, but during a widespread pandemic, how can candidates hope to get their message out?

Martita Meier, one of two vice-chairs with Washington County Democrats, said candidates need to switch tactics.

"In the end, it's phone banking that will win the day," Meier said. "If you can't get out and shake hands, you have to go 100% phone calls and do as much digitally as you can. At least that way, they can pitch their story to voters."

Washington County Democrats are hosting an online forum with three Democrat candidates for Secretary of State — state senators Mark Hass and Shemia Fagan and Jamie McLeod-Skinner - on April 18.

"This is still something that's helpful for people, and they can join in online, in a setting that's safe," Meier said.

Much of Washington County Democrats' budget goes to canvassing local neighborhoods, Meier said. Workers knock on doors to answer voter questions and remind voters to fill out their ballots. But with social distancing restrictions keeping that from happening, Meier said it's more important than ever that candidates spread their message any way they can.

"If you're bored at home, reach out to your favorite candidates," she said. "Pick ones that share your values and help them make phone calls."

In addition, Haley at City Club of Portland said her organization and others like it would continue to do what they can to host digital forums and debates.

"Democracy doesn't stop," she said. "If we have to do this in November, we'll do it in November. Even when it feels like the sky is falling, democracy has to move forward. This crisis has shown us that the people we vote into office directly impact our lives."

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