PSU Student Advisor Candace Avalos, who has been campaigning for the city commissioner seat in the coming election, as seen outside her house on April 26, 2020. Emma Wallace/PSU Vanguard

COVID-19, campaigns and creative solutions

How a pandemic is affecting local elections

As COVID-19 locks down Portland this election cycle, city government candidates are finding new ways to campaign. 


The coronavirus pandemic led to Oregon Governor Kate Brown limiting Oregonians’ movements, and politicians are no exception. Activities vital to the typical campaign—rallies, debates, in-person canvassing—are out-of-bounds. From virtual debates to virtual press conferences, things are moving online and they are moving fast.


City commissioner Chloe Eudaly is running for re-election. Her campaign had to adapt in numerous ways. Her position on city council demanded extra time in crisis, time that would normally be used for campaigning.


“My time is limited,” Eudaly said. “We face urgent decisions and policy making decisions, but we still need to focus on the future.”


Eudaly has been social distancing since March, because her son is immunocompromised. Her campaign team still meets daily and is finding ways to connect despite the distance.


“We start each day with a pop culture quiz, just something to get to know each other better,” Eudaly said.


Eudaly thinks some good has come out of campaigning amid COVID-19.


“There’s less waste,” she said of campaign mailers, posters and especially lawn signs. “I hate lawn signs. They’re just corrugated plastic—they’re horrible for the environment.”


Another candidate for city council, Candace Avalos, coordinator of student government and greek life advisor at Portland State, has had to adapt her campaign strategy.


“So much of our field strategy was person to person,” Avalos said. Her team is now focusing on online mediums, such as Zoom, a video conferencing system widely used at PSU. She is using Zoom to hold town halls.


“I have felt the transition has been a lot better for me because I’m familiar with these tools, and I’m familiar with how you create different ways to engage with the community—it’s what I do advising student government all the time.”


Coverage of the election is also changing. John Tierney, assistant news director at KGW, talked about how the local news station is covering local elections. 


“We still want to make sure voters understand who candidates are,” Tierney said. However, that can be hard in a business where coverage of COVID-19 dominates the news cycle. 


Getting access to candidates has gotten harder, and they have limited resources when there is so much demand to focus on other topics. 


KGW and Portland’s other three local broadcasters—KOIN, KATU and KPTV— have begun pooling resources. In the event a candidate cannot be reached via electronic means, the stations send only one videographer, and then phone in their questions. This limits exposure for everyone involved. 


The City Club of Portland has also had to adapt. In normal election cycles, The City Club holds events such as town halls and debates. These are typically ticketed. In light of COVID-19, the City Club has moved all programming online, and made it free. 


“We removed the paywall, so now thousands of people are watching,” said Erin Haley, City Club’s director of communications and marketing. 


According to Haley, there are always “politically-minded people who pay attention,” but now that everyone is stuck home, “people are really tuning in.”


The City Club seeks to be accessible to all candidates, and the organization has had to start asking questions about equity as everything becomes virtual. “Do all candidates have computers with cameras?” is just one such question.


This is a problem for all campaigns, news outlets and civic organizations; when things enter cyberspace, who gets left behind?


“We want to include as many people as possible, but there are barriers,” Haley said. 


These barriers include internet connectivity, cell phone access and computer access, among others. Every time there is a piece of equipment between a candidate and constituents, some may not have that equipment to access the election process as fully.


Since Oregon uses a vote-by-mail system, voting itself will go on as normal. 


Before the events of COVID-19, Eudaly and Avalos were both preparing for virtual debates. With the move to online, Eudaly spoke of an extra step in her debate setup.


“I put a photo of puppies or my son behind the camera—something to make me happy.”