Congress plugs into electronic votes via e-mail

June 21, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON — Washington--When word reached Wilmington, N.C., in May that the U.S. House was to vote to ban many assault weapons, a gun-owning resident of that quiet coastal town decided to protest. So he turned on his computer.

"A nation in which the government owns all the coercive force is a police state," he typed. "We're heading down a dangerous path."

Seconds later, the message flickered onto a computer screen in the Washington office of Rep. Charles Rose III, a Democrat who represents Wilmington. Mr. Rose's staff then fired off an electronic note assuring the cyber-constituent that Mr. Rose would oppose the assault-gun ban.

Nearly 100 more messages were dispatched to Mr. Rose in the days before the vote. And if you believe Mr. Rose, many more political connections will soon be forged this way -- through a network of electronic mail, or e-mail.

Mr. Rose wants to put every member of Congress on-line. As chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees congressional office resources, he is one of e-mail's loudest cheerleaders.

"It seems the possibilities are endless," Mr. Rose says. With just a few keystrokes, he points out, far-flung constituents can take part in the political process.

Others wonder whether congressional e-mail is merely a fad, or worse, a taxpayer-funded campaign device. Some call e-mail the next incumbent perk, a mass publicity scheme by politicians, about politicians, for politicians. From their Capitol Hill legislative offices, critics say, incumbents can use e-mail solely for self-promotion, particularly at election time.

"The whole point of this is to [assure] tenure" in Congress, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "This can only help to further a lawmaker's political agenda."

About 75 congressional and committee offices either have e-mail technology or are awaiting a linkup.

So far, Maryland's congressional delegation has been slow to leap into the interactive age. No Maryland lawmakers can yet be e-mailed directly. But some, such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, are interested in eventually putting their offices on-line.

E-mail messages travel via the Internet, a spider's web of computer networks spanning the globe, linking about 20 million people and immense data bases of information.

Unlike a paper letter, e-mail arrives with the touch of a button. Unlike a fax, it provides speedy two-way communication between politicians and constituents. Unlike a long-distance phone call, it allows lengthy discussions without high costs. Unlike a personal meeting, it is faceless and freewheeling, granting access regardless of power or position.

A bridge to voters

Lawmakers praise e-mail as a high-tech antidote to an alienated electorate, a tool to bridge the gap between voters and politicians who are perceived as out of touch with everyday America.

"So many Americans are alienated by the giant, impenetrable bureaucracy of the government," says Rep. Elizabeth Furse, an Oregon Democrat. "I have found that electronic communication helps shorten the distance and break down those communication barriers."

Still, some observers wonder about the political motives behind the trend. E-mail, they note, is not only the shortest path from lawmaker to constituent; it is also the shortest path from politician to voter.

Instead of waiting for word from home, lawmakers are popping up on the personal-computer screens of constituents. Many put their news releases, speech transcripts and floor statements on line.

Mr. Sabato contends that all forms of political outreach -- from a hometown visit to a high-tech message -- can be exploited for personal gain. "It sounds innocent enough, but the real purpose of constituent communication is almost always to shore up the re-election prospects of the incumbents using taxpayer dollars," he says.

That characterization rankles Rep. Richard A. Zimmer, a New Jersey Republican whose office just jumped into the electronic fray.

"I'm not forcing myself on anyone's computer," Mr. Zimmer says. "I'm just making it possible for people to communicate in a mode that's most convenient for them."

Another e-mail devotee, Rep. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, says it takes too long for paper letters -- "snail mail" -- to move between Washington and the West Coast. The speed of mail, she says, encourages her constituents to participate in a bureaucracy that could otherwise seem impenetrable.

"What e-mail allows you to do is have a more personal dialogue," says Ms. Cantwell, whose district is home to the software giant Microsoft Corp. "It's kind of like someone walking into your office and saying, 'Hey, I want to talk to you.' "

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, wants to use e-mail as a polling device. Early this month, she put a health-care questionnaire on-line and asked for electronic responses on proposed reforms. So far, her office has received 430 responses.

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