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Why the next presidential debate could totally be on Zoom

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Back in May, candidates for office in U.S. Congressional District 14 held their first entirely virtual debate ahead of the June primaries in New York. The Zoom video conference platform was the “stage” for the four candidates, including incumbent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a moderator.

Now, with the news that President Donald Trump has tested positive for coronavirus, the fate of the next two presidential debates (scheduled for Oct. 15 and 22) is up in the air. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing for them to happen, increasing the likelihood that they could be held remotely. 

“It should go forward,” McConnell said in a radio interview, The Hill reported Friday. “Hopefully the president feels up to it and, you know, they can work this out remotely.” 

The idea of a Zoom debate between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is not that outlandish. Even before Trump’s COVID-19 positive test, calls for a Zoom-based debate were already arising. Zoom’s muting feature seemed like one way to control Trump’s interruptions and eruptions. The Commission on Presidential Debates, for its part, announced it was looking at changes to the format “to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

One of those necessary changes could be moving from an IRL space at a university or event hall to computer screens.

There’s plenty of precedent. U.S. House of Representatives Congressional districts have been using Zoom as a debate platform since in-person gatherings were deemed unsafe starting in March. The University of Mary Washington hosted the Virginia 1st Congressional District debate last week. Florida’s Congressional District 19 debate was also on Zoom in May. The Massachusetts 4th Congressional District had a Zoom debate in July that was organized by students in the district. It was also streamed on Facebook and Instagram Live.

Next week, Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District is hosting a Zoom debate. Watching the District 14 debate (Ocasio-Cortez won the primary election, btw) on YouTube shows these Zoom events aren’t that noticeably different from a televised, in-person event.

Since the start of the pandemic, as more and more critical events rely on Zoom, the platform has improved its security settings and accessibility features for users with disabilities. Assuming the president remains well enough to participate, it could soon be the official debate platform. 

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