Get Smart!

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.

Online Influx

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