Zoom becomes big election player

Dianne Morales says online forums exclude those who are already marginalized

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Shaking hands and kissing babies were once the way to winning elected office, but not when election season is in full swing in the middle of a pandemic. 

Still, the vote must go on with competitive races for mayor, comptroller and all 51 seats on the city council. That’s not to mention special elections already held for city council seats vacated at the end of last year, including the one March 23 won by former school teacher Eric Dinowitz.

If voters aren’t coming out to see candidates, then there seems to be just one solution — the candidates come to the voters. And they’ve been doing that through a large number of live events hosted by political and activist organizations as well as news outlets. However, like many things, these forums have moved online. And the many squares with faces that populate the screen of the Zoom videoconferencing app have become synonymous with this election season.

But Dianne Morales has had enough.

The mayoral candidate posted a blog entry on her campaign website declaring she won’t attend any more online forums until after the June 22 primary. Instead, Morales will direct her campaign’s time and resources toward reaching voters on the ground. 

Why is she doing this? Because she already has attended more than 50 online forums, and more often than not, these gatherings are completely inaccessible to lower-income communities of color.

“Moving forward, we will meet New Yorkers ‘where they are at,’ prioritizing community-centered, on-the-ground organizing strategies to connect with those who have been underserved by this city,” Morales wrote. “The reality is this race will not be won on Zoom.” 

But Zoom isn’t just the bane of mayoral candidates. From the beginning of 2021 all the way up to special election day on March 23, city council candidates seeking to replace Andrew Cohen attended at least a dozen online candidate forums.

Sometimes there were multiple forums on a single night, with the six candidates shuffling from one Zoom to the next. Hosts for these forums ranged from news organizations — like The Riverdale Press — to more community-based activist groups like the Coalition to Save Brust Park.

While the special election itself is over, nearly all of those candidates and even a couple more are already back at it for the June 22 primary to decide if Dinowitz will continue in that council seat past the end of the year, or if someone else will be poised to take over for the two-year term.

One local political activist, Rebecca Lish, applauds Morales’ decision, and agrees these forums are not as accessible as one might think. The biggest barrier to entry, Lish said, is the need for a good broadband internet connection, which is a luxury many low-income households just don’t have. 

“They also take time — sometimes quite a bit,” Lish said, “which makes attendance a challenge for single parents, people working multiple jobs, and others whose time is tightly budgeted.”

Then these forums can become even more exclusive because hosts often advertise them online on their own social media channels, with little or no effort to reach a broader audience.

“This is a weakness of club atmospheres and the algorithms that distribute information,” Lish said. 

“Clubs grow by members bringing in people they know, so homogeneity is difficult to avoid. Correcting for bias only happens when the effort is personal and persistent. Putting out an open call is a well-meaning but often ineffective way to welcome people with whom you have no prior relationship.”

However, Lish said, there have been some candidate forums — in both the citywide races and the local special election — that made efforts to draw a more racially and socio-economically diverse crowd. Like, for example, a forum held by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition with its Bronx People’s Platform — a “collective vision” developed by a number of community leaders and activists in the borough.  

Shira Silverman, who helps run a Facebook discussion group focused on the elections for Cohen’s seat, says it’s still important for candidates to attend forums, even if they can have better audience draws.

“It’s always the same group of people,” Silverman said. “But if you don’t have the support of those people, then you’re in trouble.”

Still, she added, candidates need to do more than just attend online events, especially if they want any chance of reaching more under-represented people. 

Special election turnout was low with a little more than 9,500 of the district’s 102,600 registered voters casting a ballot. That’s fewer than one out of every 10 registered voters even participating, and practically none of those coming from lower-income neighborhoods of color, Silverman said.

“I think (the forums) are more effective in conjunction with other ways of getting out the vote,” she said. “And I think we really need to work on that. Because Wakefield, Norwood, Bedford Park and Woodlawn just basically don’t have any say in the district.”

Another reason online forums are useful is that they continue to provide a safe and reliable way for candidates to communicate with voters while the pandemic is still raging, Silverman added. 

Jessica Haller, who ultimately finished third in the special election behind Dinowitz and Mino Lora, said that while she agrees Morales made the right decision, candidates like her don’t have the luxury to bow out of such forums like Morales, especially when their means of physically reaching voters is so limited as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

“Making that statement on March 25, or whatever date, is a lot easier,” Haller said. “So, my enthusiasm for her statement is less about what we should have done — because I think that we were just doing the best that we could — and more about moving forward.”

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