Download democracy for a better Maryland

May 28, 2002|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON -- Maryland can lead the way this election year in getting information to voters online.

The federal government and state governments around the country are taking advantage of the Internet and putting social services online. Issue advocacy efforts -- whether they concern promoting specific pieces of legislation or organizing rallies -- are growing in number. In the 2000 election, the majority of House and Senate candidates had Web sites.

But there has not been a similar technological revolution among the citizenry, and the pace of change in the political campaigns, while improving with each election, is still slow.

Citizens are not well-informed before elections, voter turnout is very low, especially in midterm elections (when it can be under 40 percent), and politicians are not responsive to the information and interaction needs of voters.

Maryland can take the lead and speed up the pace of campaign reform this election year.

According to a recent study by the state's Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), which is a public-private partnership created by the General Assembly, Maryland is the most wired state in the nation. Fully 64 percent of Marylanders have Internet access at home or elsewhere.

Maryland, moreover, has the highest average income in the nation. It also has one of the highest levels of education.

Maryland is the place to reverse all of the sorry trends of American campaign politics -- the sound bite ads, the millions of dollars spent on TV ads, the character assassinations.

Here's what Marylanders should do:

Candidates for office should invest lots of money in Web site construction, Web site management and e-mail organizational efforts.

Candidates should build Web sites that compare and contrast their positions on issues with others'. Simple-minded sound bite negative ads should be replaced with information-rich, fair criticism of their opponents. Criticizing the opponent's qualifications is also fair game.

Nonpartisan organizations should organize online forums and downloadable videos of debates between candidates.

Political parties should get the vote out with online advocacy efforts, especially with Internet-savvy Maryland youths.

Everyone involved in election politics should make information available about where those without Internet access can get online -- where there are libraries, community centers and other public places that provide free computer time.

Marylanders should make the digital divide disappear for the elections, the first of which is the Sept. 10 primaries. TV commentators should promote the value of online resources.

The Internet should be integrated with other forms of political communications, ranging from the handshake to radio. It has the ability to revolutionize political campaigns.

The states, historians and political scientists say, are laboratories of change. By calling on the entire political system to change all at once, we have been looking in the wrong place.

Maryland's candidates, political consultants, political party leaders, citizens and the media should accept the challenge to lead the way.

If Maryland decides to do this, then the Internet will enable us to increase political participation, political knowledge and political accountability in one election cycle. The time is now; the choice is ours.

David M. Anderson, of Potomac, is task force director of the George Washington University Democracy Online Project.

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