From the Mayoral Candidates: Forum Virtual Candidates Forums Bring New Challenges

For the Boston Ward 4 and 5 Democratic Committees to successfully partner on their online Mayoral Candidates Forum on Tuesday, April 20, its organizers were met with a different set of logistics and challenges than they would have faced in staging an in-person event, as was the norm in the pre-pandemic world.

Jonathan Cohn, chair of the Boston Ward 4 Democratic Committee, said when he and Sharon Durkan, chair of the Boston Ward 5 Democratic Committee, planned this week’s event, they wanted to make sure it took place early enough in the campaign cycle that voters weren’t already suffering from “Zoom overload,” which they had both read has already happened with voters in New York in the anticipation of that city’s upcoming mayoral election.

“We wanted to make sure we had a forum early before Zoom fatigue hit people,” Cohn added.

One major upside to holding the event online, said Cohn, is that it  “allows better flexibility as to who can attend,” since they wouldn’t have to overcome travel obstacles or forego eating dinner at home to be there. “When you can attend from your living room,” he said, “it helps to expand the conversation.”

More than 500 people tuned in for Tuesday’s event, according to Durkan, which was the biggest audience for one of their forums in recent years.

“Going virtual/online gave us the opportunity to have our forum reach more members of our communities, and our planning committee began planning this months ago, which gives you an idea of how much work goes into this event behind the scenes,” Durkan wrote in an email. “I think the best compliment to our event is that other community groups have already reached out to ask for our advice in planning and executing virtual forums.”

She also credits much of the event’s success to its moderator, Callie Crossley, who, according to Durkan, “asked questions that really helped make distinctions between the candidates, and create a captivating conversation about Boston’s future.”

Despite all the advantages to holding these events virtually, one new issue that has arisen is the possibility of what Cohn calls “crosstalk” in reference to feedback that can result when more than one person are speaking simultaneously.

“If you jump in when someone else is talking, that creates a horrible sound effect on Zoom,” Cohn said.

As for getting candidates to adhere to their allotted speaking times, that job actually got easier for Tuesday’s event, said Cohn, thanks to a downloadable app that “gives candidates a countdown.”

Another upside to using the app, said Cohn, is that “it makes it run more smoothly flowing in terms of candidates trying to constantly interrupt each other, which can happen.”

Prior to this week’s event, the Boston Ward 4 and 5 Democratic Committees had partnered on a forum for Suffolk County District Attorney in 2018, as well as on candidates forums for both the District 8 City Council and City Council at-Large races in 2019, and they have already scheduled a joint Candidates Form for City Council at-Large on June 24.

Their ongoing partnerships are “logical,” said Cohn, since both wards cover parts of the Back Bay, South End and the Fenway.

As for how he expects these events would look in a post-pandemic world, some previously held in-person Candidates Forums had also been live streamed, Cohn said, and he expects that practice would resume again in the future.

Yet, Cohn anticipates this would likely result in a new set of challenges.

“We’ll just have a whole new set of logistical issues, especially around sound quality,” he said.

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