By Sharon Jarvis and Stefanie Sanford
There are lots of third-party civic and voter participation sites out there. Its just a matter of finding out what they offer ... and if theyre worth visiting.
Jason Fellman is a rather paradigmatic Internet-era figure. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is the 27-year old president of FG Squared Interactive Communications, a company he started with a college dorm mate in 1994. He recently delivered testimony to a joint hearing of the Advisory Council on the Digital Economy and the GWU Online Democracy
project, describing himself as, " ... a beneficiary of the New Economy, busy, self absorbed, uninformed, impatient, opinionated and reasonably well off financially." But Fellman was not there to talk about his business or his much-maligned generation. He had been called to share information about a civic venture that he and two others launched: GetHeard.org.
Do Fellman and his colleagues match the cynical stereotype of the young wired worker? Hardly. According to his testimony, they believe the Internet might promote civic involvement in a variety of ways, including:
enabling voters to access vast amounts of information;
increasing the dialogue between policy makers and constituents by leveraging the immediacy and convenience of the new medium; encouraging higher voter turnout because people are more likely to vote if they are informed and engaged; and providing a greater level of accountability for policy makers because the Internet provides a whole new level of scrutiny of public action.
GetHeard.orgs initial metric of success is simple but tough: increased voter turnout in the next election. Their work is part of the growing third-party civic and voter participation genre of Web entrants.
Early political sites offered the digitization of paper forms, a modest technological deployment. Indeed, political Web pages in the 96 and 98 elections were largely virtual filing cabinets of documents produced by campaigns. Election 2000 has witnessed the arrival of more sophisticated functionality, especially interactivity. While the lions share of press coverage of Internet politics has focused on the presidential candidate sites (or the political moves of high-profile politicians, such as the U.S. Senate site intended to collect ideas from citizens on how the government might offer more services and better online information), many innovative and democratically promising offerings are lower profile, often third-party civic participation and voter education sites. These sites are both for-profit and not-for-profit, and fall into the categories outlined by Fellman and his peers -- increased accountability, access to non-biased political information and voter convenience.
Calling All (or Any) Advertisers
There are a host of sites that are banking on the hopes that citizens want information and that advertisers are willing to subsidize these cravings.
An early entrant into this market was Voter.com, which debuted in 1999. The company is privately held and boasts principals that are nearly household names among the politically inclined. Promising "legislation in plain English," this site features political news, links to
officials, a video library, polling data and message boards where visitors can join in political conversations. Additionally, a Debate of the Day area may be helpful to citizens because it positions reputable groups against one another on a set of subjects (e.g. the Heritage Foundation against the Sierra Club on the topic of Globalization).
Like most entities in this space, evote.com promises to be
non-partisan. Yet, unlike some of the other sites that focus on issues and policies, its goal is "to treat American politics the way it should be treated: as the most complex and exciting sport in the world." In reporting and commenting on the great game of politics, they admit that
the site may be viewed as cynical, but hope that viewers find it thought provoking. Citizens and scholars alike have debated the merits of focusing on politics as sport. While some find a site featuring pop quizzes -- How Do You Rate Joe Lieberman As Gores Veep Pick? A) Hello Oval Office, b) Oi Vey!, c) A Real Sleeper, d) Lloyd Bentsen 2.0 -- distasteful, recent research by communication professor Jeffrey Jones suggests that the marriage between politics and popular culture may not be such a bad thing because it can seduce citizens who are otherwise uninterested in politics into having political thoughts and acquiring
political information. So, although some may object to the direction of evote.com, others may flock to this site because of it.
Perhaps the most notorious player in this space is Vote.com, the brainchild of bipartisan advisor-turned-pundit Dick Morris. Vote.com is a fully interactive site designed to offer a voice on important public issues and other topics. In their words, "the Internet is filled with
chances for us to listen and read. This site gives us a chance to speak out and to be heard. When you vote on a topic listed on our site, well send an immediate e-mail to significant decision makers like your congressional representative, your senators and the president telling them how you feel." Like its brethren, it claims no specific ideology or party (indeed, columnists range from Morris to Molly Ivins, Rush Limbaugh, Alexander Cockburn and Oliver North), only the sincere desire to bring the views of the people to the attention of politicians.
SpeakOut.com more closely resembles the feel and demeanor of a dot-org site than the for-profit sites launched by political veterans. Based in Washington, D.C., SpeakOut.com is a non-partisan Internet activism site and online opinion research company that offers a wide variety of news and information links as well as activism tools offering aggregated messaging to a vast array of public officeholders, candidates, business and news executives. A potential next-generation feature in the works at SpeakOut.com is an online research technology called Ntercept -- an Internet-enabled tool allowing thousands of users to simultaneously react to televised or Internet-streamed images. Ntercept, in effect, creates an online focus group showing participants cumulative levels of approval or disapproval for each speech, commercial or audio segment (down to the individual word, phrase or visual image) being tested.
The goal of this site is to make activism as easy as possible. As such, it taps into what a recent U.S. Census study discovered about low voter participation in the Digital Age: Time constraints decrease the likelihood that citizens will be active in governance. Findings from recent focus groups of high-tech knowledge workers confirmed that people are interested in civic matters but do not have the time to search for information, whether its finding their polling places or locating the person in charge of fixing potholes. SpeakOut.com hopes to offer technology to simplify such tasks.
A series of not-for-profit sites also deliver "non-biased" information to empower voters to make better decisions. The leading player is Project Vote Smart , which characterizes itself as a voter defense system. This site is a national library of factual information on roughly 13,000 candidates for public office from the president to the state legislature. Project Vote Smart provides demographic and detailed political and record data in five areas: backgrounds, issue positions, voting records, campaign finances and performance evaluations made by over 100 liberal-to-conservative special-interest groups. In addition to this process information, the group actually interviews all 13,000 candidates and provides special services on issues for journalists, teachers and students. As testament to their success, the American Political Science Association honored Project Vote Smart as "the best
source for accurate political information on the World Wide Web."
Other voter sites are designed to provide information to help hold politicians accountable for such things as voting records (The Democracy Network), fundraising activities (Open Secrets) and secret donors (The Public I).
All Theyre Cracked Up to Be?
Communication scholar Rod Hart, director of the Annette Strauss Center for Civic Participation, questions whether all political problems can be solved electronically. He recently warned of making activism -- and hence, politics -- too bloodless. "I believe that politics is personal, communal, emotional, ideological and economic in nature. I also believe that the Internet is few of these things. As a medium, the Internet delivers personality and emotion poorly, and yet personality and emotion are the very essence of political persuasion ... Internet politics is cerebral politics, sitting-down politics. What we need is
more standing-up politics, more get-out-of-the-house politics."
The political effect of mass e-mails -- like those sent from Vote.com -- is unclear at this point. Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Texas) reflects the prevailing wait-and-see attitude. "We have people on staff who read the e-mail just like they read the mail. And we do use the e-mail to
help understand what folks in my district are thinking about things. But I treat these form e-mails like I treat a form letter or post card -- I respond in kind. Theres a big difference to me when somebody takes the time to think about an issue, write up a letter and send it to me. That constituent deserves my attention. A card? Doesnt mean
much. Same with e-mail."
Relaying the Right Message?
Civic and Voter Participation Sites and Localized Sites
The implicit message in these sites is that transparency is desirable. But many of them carry a negative assumption of the process, a concept that sharply contrasts the optimism of sites like GetHeard.org, and even the fixation with the power of evote.com. Although these accountability sites provide a useful service (an avenue for citizen "oversight of official behavior"), they fall short of realizing the
civic engagement potential that futurists hope for the Internet (no meaningful mechanism for participation).
On this score, Fellman contends that information dissemination is not enough. He and his colleagues hope that GetHeard.org will not only share information, but also help busy knowledge workers understand the relationship among the political sphere, governmental services and
their own communities so they will virtually and physically become more involved at local and national levels.
In a sense, this relationship between the Internet and physical involvement resembles Professor Robert Putnams hopes for how citizens will use the Internet. Putnams recent text, "Bowling Alone: Americas Declining Social Capital," traces the evolution of community engagement in the U.S., investigating causes and cures for our fragmented public. "The issue is whether the Net will become like a nifty telephone (strengthening and deepening our face-to-face ties) or like a nifty TV (pulling us farther into isolation)," he said in a recent online discussion of his take on what the Internet has to offer communities. "The interesting question is how to blend Internet-based and face-to-face social networks -- mixing the best of old and new."
Fellman and his colleagues at GetHeard.org are optimistic about such a mixture, hinting that civic-minded sites can learn from prosperous e-commerce sites. "There is so much hype and mythology about the New Economy. Weve got great new tools, but the fundamentals havent changed. To be successful, you have to understand the basics of your
business, then deploy these new tools to meet the pace of Internet time. How different can politics be? We want to be a trusted source that cuts through the cynicism and helps people be involved. Its really that simple."
Sharon Jarvis is an assistant professor of political communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Stefanie Sanford is Special Assistant for Technology to the Lt. Governor of Texas.