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Online Town Halls Likely to Survive Beyond the Pandemic

The pandemic caused Orange County, Calif., to move its public town halls online to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions. Even as those restrictions begin to lift, it’s unlikely that the online town halls will stop.

(TNS) — Politicians haven't been kissing many babies of late, but some Orange County Congress members have been holding more town halls than ever, trying to share information about the pandemic and political issues while taking advantage of the convenience — and marketing reach — that comes with virtual meetings.

From the politician's view, virtual town halls have their perks, starting with the fact that anybody, in any district, can tune in without changing out of their pajamas. In April 2020, a virtual event hosted by Rep. Katie Porter, D- Irvine, drew more than 100,000 people. Pre-pandemic, Porter's biggest live audience had been a space-limited 400.

But technology also can bring challenges. On May 18, Rep. Young Kim, R- La Habra, held a telephone town hall (her third since taking office in January) where residents who pre-registered to "attend" were supposed to get a call connecting them as the event went live. Instead, many phones never rang. A spokesperson for Kim said her office is looking into what went wrong and working with their phone session vendor to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are readily available, with case numbers declining and restrictions easing, some residents are pushing for their elected representatives to return to in-person town halls.

"The people want to be able to confront or 'press the flesh' with their member," said Fred Smoller, political science professor at Chapman University. "This is very much a part of American democracy."

Porter's team is planning their first in-person town hall since the pandemic started. If health conditions remain favorable, the plan is to hold it outdoors this summer. And other local representatives said they're evaluating face-to-face options as health guidelines change.

But in surveying local representatives, it's clear that at least some virtual town halls are here to stay.

"The pandemic has certainly changed the way we think about doing such events as so many people have become comfortable during the pandemic with using video streaming technology — an acceptance that was not there prior to the pandemic," said Keith Higginbotham, spokesman for Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach.

"I think the future will likely be a hybrid of in-person and virtual events," he added. "The virtual meeting has now become just another of the tools available for the congressman to connect with his constituents."

Voters meeting face-to-face with elected officials, in some way, has been expectation since America took shape. But Smoller said the specific expectation that elected officials regularly hold town halls — with some lawmakers touting how many they've held and some challengers calling out incumbents for not having enough — is a relatively new phenomenon.

"It appears to have become almost a requirement of public office to do these things," Smoller said.

When a slate of Democrats campaigned to flip four Orange County House seats in 2018, one of their talking points was how some of the longtime GOP incumbents who'd represented those districts did not regularly hold town halls.

"Our retiring member of Congress, Darrell Issa, held three town hall meetings in the last decade," Mike Levin tweeted in April 2018, as the ran for CA-49. "I'll hold at least one town hall a month. You deserve a member of Congress who keeps showing up."

Levin, D- San Juan Capistrano, has exceeded that pledge. Since taking office in January, 2019, Levin has held 74 town halls, a rate of 2.5 town halls a month, the highest of all House members representing Orange County.

"When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he immediately increased the frequency of his town halls and had local public health experts join him to ensure constituents had all of the information they needed to stay safe and healthy," said Eric Mee, Levin's spokesman.

As of Friday, May 21, Levin had held 15 in-person events, which also were live-streamed via Facebook, and 59 virtual town halls. He's often accompanied by guests to talk discuss topics ranging from the pandemic to systemic racism to climate change. He also records his town halls and puts them out as a podcast available on several major platforms.

Porter has hosted 48 town halls, including 33 virtual events that have been done via a mix of telephone, Zoom and social media.

Rep. Lou Correa, D- Anaheim, has hosted 46 town halls since January 2019, with 25 held virtually over the past year. Thousands tuned in to some of the pandemic-related virtual town halls, he said, while a recent event, about taxation, drew only a few dozen people.

Correa said he held some virtual meetings even before the pandemic.

"For many working people, it can be hard to make an in-person event. By live streaming and recording our events, we hope to make them more accessible to more people."

Lowenthal has had eight official town halls over the past two years, seven virtually. Most averaged around 300 participants, while one drew more than 1,000 residents, nearly matching the biggest in-person audience he's drawn during his nine years in Congress. The biggest, he said, was an 1,100-person town hall he held in 2016, following the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D- Whittier, whose 38th District includes a sliver of north Orange County, has had more than 30 events in the past two years, a combination of town halls, small group meetings and other events, to directly engage with voters, spokesman Michael Cummings said. Her most recent event was a tele-town hall with L.A. County leaders to discuss COVID-19 relief for Southern California. Cummings said more than 4,000 people dialed in.

Freshman GOP Rep. Michelle Steel held her first town hall as a telephone event on May 13. Steel shared some of her priorities in the House, including sand replacement on local beaches, fighting high-speed rail and repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions. She also took 21 questions from the more than 2,000 residents who were on the hour-long call.

Of course, town halls aren't the only way representatives connect with residents. And Smoller said some lawmakers clearly excel at and enjoy such scenarios more than others do.

Lowenthal, for example, focuses on regular coffee events with smaller groups of residents.

"He appreciates the added intimacy of smaller group meetings and believes it allows better back and forth between himself and the audience," Higginbotham said.

Pandemic issues aside, House members and their representatives say public events can come with safety concerns. Those fears, they note, spiked after former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D- Arizona, was shot during a 2011 community event and have continued as interest groups have become adept at using social media to coordinate ambushes over hyper-partisan issues.

Such confrontations have forced Correa to ask for uniformed police to attend in-person events.

"I represent a diverse community and welcome the many different views that come with that. But efforts to hijack in-person events make it difficult to hold public events," he said.

"I want to hear from everyone. Sadly, we have individuals disrupting our events, and we must now have police officers present at many of our events to ensure a civil and safe environment for all."

Virtual events also can be arranged faster than in-person events and can address timely topics, which Higginbotham pointed at as a perk. But virtual formats, such as telephone meet-ups, can cost a couple thousand dollars to arrange, making them much more expensive than a traditional, in-person town hall.

There's also the advantage — and the fear — that comes with modern information gathering.

At in-person town halls, attendees are often encouraged — though rarely required — to give over an email address or a phone number. But for virtual events, representatives on both sides of the aisle collect emails or phone numbers as requirements for attendance, typically with a note that the information will be used by the lawmaker to issue future updates.

Most local lawmakers said they rely on existing email and newsletter lists, plus social media, to promote town hall events.

Porter's office noted they also reach out to community partners when town halls touch on topics of specific interests. To publicize a town hall about stopping Asian American and Pacific Islander hate, for example, Porter's office reached out to local AAPI faith groups and advocacy organizations, according to Porter spokesman Jordan Wong. The office also has advertised town halls on local TV and via traditional mail.

Some virtual town halls include notices that they're only open to district residents. But online registration forms don't filter out non-residents. And during Steel's recent telephone town hall, she took a question from someone in Santa Ana, which isn't in her CA-48 district.

That's another difference between live and virtual town halls; it's easier to screen questions from the audience — and potentially silence critics — virtually.

Levin does not screen questions for in-person town halls, for example, but his spokesman Mee said technical limitations of virtual meetings require that he collect questions in advance.

Correa said he never screens questions.

"I represent everyone in my district and believe everyone deserves to be heard."

One of Porter's trademarks during in-person town halls was to have attendees write their questions on note cards and put them in a bingo ball spinner, so that the issues she dealt with in public were not biased by who raises their hand the fastest or jumps up and down the highest — lessons she learned from her years as a professor at UC Irvine.

But virtual town halls are different.

"With digital events, where anyone from across the country can attend," Wong said, "we have to screen questions to prioritize constituents."

Lowenthal doesn't screen questions in the sense of picking only easy issues or questions that fit a certain narrative, Higginbotham said. But while most in-person events simply feature an open microphone, available to any resident, virtual town halls sometimes require that questions be collected in advance and batched together so they can get to as many as possible in the given time-frame.

While virtual events have their problems, Smoller said their popularity during the pandemic proves that residents do still turn to their congress members for guidance about important issues. And, because of that, he doesn't see virtual town halls going away anytime soon.

(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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