Net Election

Yakety-Yak, Don’t E-Mail Back

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

The Internet is a good place to learn about political candidates and campaigns–as long as the information comes from just about anywhere but the candidates themselves.

That’s the belief of many politically active Web surfers who were recently surveyed by the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. According to the poll of 1,205 Web surfers, 64 percent say that they are likely to believe what they read online. But a scant 14 percent think that the information offered online by candidates is reliable. Fifty-two percent put their greatest faith in Web sites sponsored by church organizations, and just 39 percent say that a civic or news organization merits similar trust.

The survey also indicates that voters surf the Net to learn more about community problems, read candidate biographies, and determine who to vote for.

Those polled, however, appear less enthusiastic about forging an “interactive” relationship with campaigns or candidates. Respondents are more concerned with whether political sites can document their positions, observe privacy policies, and disclose sponsorship than with whether they provide an e-mail contact address.

Voters might be less interested in exchanging comments with candidates online because they fear that no one is listening, reasons David Sackett, a political consultant with the Tarrance Group, which was commissioned by the Democracy Online Project to conduct the surveys along with help from Lake Snell Perry & Associates. Sackett believes that there’s a historical skepticism among voters, who question whether their individual voices will be heard, much less heeded, by political candidates.

But to a certain extent the medium is also having an impact on the message from respondents. Online, voters can shop for candidates just as they would shop for goods. “People are getting used to making choices on their own timetables,” says Sackett, arguing that political Web sites have to be as thorough, as responsive, and as up-to-date as commercial ones. “If we don’t take the lead, we’re going to get hoisted on our own petards,” says Sackett, apparently referring to the cottage industry in political parody Web sites.

To help improve campaign Web sites, Michael Cornfield, the research director at Democracy Online Project, has produced an online campaign primer for technologically challenged political junkies. Cornfield has also proposed a national government directory of official candidate Web sites, to help steer voters away from parody sites.

The primer is 21 pages of basic tips on how to build a campaign Web site. Among them: Buy a computer made in the last year or two, update information often, design the pages with the same overall color scheme, and always make sure visitors know how to get back to the home page. “These aren’t politicos who are going online,” says Cornfield. “These are Net users who are sidling over to politics. If they don’t like what they see, they’re gone.”

Cornfield’s proposal for the directory has come under fire from anti-government and privacy advocates who tend to view government involvement in any endeavor as a sinister machination. Cornfield responds by saying that the directory he envisions would be a benign source of information, rather than a “Good Housekeeping seal” of approval for political Web sites.

For now, eight states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, and Virginia, have plans to include a line for candidates to write in their URLs on the 2000 filing forms. And some will post a list of official URLs on their state government Web sites.