Internet technology has the potential to revolutionize politics. But most pols haven't gotten the hang of it yet.


June 29, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,sun national staff

Have Fun!" advises California's official election Web site.

Elections? Fun? Well, for some at least.

On primary election night in California, home computer users on the West Coast - and anywhere else - could catch the latest returns live on the state's web site.

Those with up-to-date PCs got customized totals for the contests they wanted, updated automatically every five minutes and plotted on colorful, county-by-county displays. By morning, anyone who missed the victory and concession speeches could download audio versions from a San Francisco web site.

In one respect, these election fireworks hint at the potential of technology to transform American politics. Millions of ordinary computer users now have access to sophisticated data - at least in California - that was once limited to network TV moguls. Citizens can bypass the news media and go straight to the candidates, interest groups and the government.

Indeed, at a time when traditional news organizations are scaling back election coverage, more information than ever before is available to those with a computer, an Internet connection and an interest in politics.

Most major candidates in the 1998 elections have sites on the World Wide Web. Some accept donations or sell campaign merchandise online. Congressional voting records and political donations are posted on the Web. Citizens with PCs can find out the name of their representative and, in some areas, the location of their polling place. Political chat rooms are buzzing. Online clipping services - some free and some fee-based - provide round-the-clock links to campaign news. Thanks to the PC and the Web, those with the time and the inclination can become virtual political insiders.

But the Information Age has yet to revolutionize politics the way that TV - the last great technological advance - did.

At the moment, relatively few people are connecting with campaigns and candidates on the Web. While a survey by Pew Research Center found that the audience for Internet news is growing rapidly, politics is a snooze, even for this largely upscale group. It ranked politics at the bottom of its list of Internet interests.

California, home to one of every eight Americans, is the most wired state in the country. According to a recent survey, 42 percent of its residents have e-mail addresses. But even in California, the marriage of PCs and politics has yet to be consummated.

An apathetic netizenry is one obstacle. The fact that most people don't have computers is clearly another. And a failure of imagination by candidates and their advisers another factor in keeping e-politics from taking off.

"I can't prove to you that anybody has cracked the code yet," says Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster in the Bay area. "It is coming. I'm just not sure from a practical standpoint that anybody has figured out how to do it yet."

For the most part, campaign Web sites attract an elite audience that's already tuned into politics, including civic leaders, journalists and aides from rival campaigns. In the June 2 primary, labor organizations revved up a grass roots drive to defeat an initiative that would have crippled their political power. But in a state with 14.5 million voters, the Web site promoting the union effort drew 25,000 visits in the three months leading up to the election.

According to promoters of digital democracy, 1996 was the last election for the old politics and 1998 will be the first true Information Age campaign. But like many other claims about the Internet, these predictions appear premature at best.

"We're on the cusp," says Dave Dolliver, a political Web site designer in Sacramento. "But we won't really see things change until the first five years of the next millennium."

There are several reasons for this. The Internet audience - estimated at 40 million and growing - still represents only a fraction of the voting-age population. Younger people, who make up a disproportionate share of computer users, are also the least likely to vote. At the same time, the mostly middle-aged strategists who manage campaigns have been slow to adopt the new technology.

"The people who run campaigns all think radio, TV, print. But the Web is just slowly creeping into their way of doing things," says Dolliver. "They don't really have faith in it yet."

Four years ago, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, like most candidates, did not have a Web site. This year, all of the major candidates for statewide office have sites. Sen. Barbara Boxer's offers everything from an online political support group and e-mail newsletter to an online store that sells bumper stickers, Boxer shorts and other merchandise.

Most candidate sites, however, offer little more than "brochure-ware" - campaign leaflets and press releases dumped verbatim onto the Web. Many offer clips of news stories favorable to their candidate, and some include newspaper articles critical of rivals.

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