Like TV, the Web is altering politics

The million voters already registered online may herald a newly engaged electorate.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Click on Election.com, and you could be entering the cusp of a political cyberrevolution.

With the flourish of a few keys, you can to register to vote without leaving your seat.

That's got some political analysts predicting that 2000 could be the Internet's watershed year, just as 1960 marked television's coming of age on the American political landscape.

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Pundits remain sharply divided on whether the online world will have as profound an effect as the flickering screen did in altering Americans' perceptions of their political world and how they engage with it. But many cyberexperts believe the ability to register to vote, donate, and voice opinions with the click of a mouse could reverse citizens' long slide into civic apathy.

"Besides raising money and providing information, giving people the ability to register online might be the most significant thing the Internet does this year," says Joe Mohen, head of Election.com in Garden City, N.Y.

Others are less sanguine, believing the Internet's constantly proliferating menu of political spots will do no more than help satisfy the insatiable appetites of an already-engaged political elite.

"I would say the Internet will be a player like other news organizations, and one with an increasing audience because more people are going online," says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "But don't look for some great upswing in civic engagement in this election because of it."

But no politician appears ready to risk being caught off-line, and with reason. Already, an estimated 1 million people have registered online. Mr. Mohen projects that if, as expected, sites like Yahoo! and AOL offer the option, that number could jump to 3 million to 5 million by November. That would create an influx of new voters who will confound the best of the pundits.

Both Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and upstart Sen. John McCain stunned doubters with their success in organizing grassroots volunteers and raising lots of cash fast in cyberspace.

But it took Mr. McCain's raking in more than $7 million on the Web and organizing enough volunteers to put the fear of upset into George W. Bush, to make other national politicians' antennae go up.

"They suddenly thought, 'This should be as critical as anything else we do,' " says Stacey Wells of e-Election.com, a political-consulting firm in Oakland, Calif.

Pop-up cookies that mimicked McCain's fund-raising tactic began proliferating like dandelions on candidates' sites, urging people to "Join Now!" or "Donate Here!" Internet advisers suddenly found themselves at key strategy sessions. Web sites have become as common as road signs.

"It's too soon to tell if it's just another trick in their bag, or if it's really going to change things," says Ms. Wells. "But it's already surprised a lot of politicians, which I think is great."

The Web allows campaigns to save money on basic operations, like grass-roots organizing. Taking a cue from organized labor, which used the Web to increase Democratic turnout in key districts in the 1998 election, many campaigns now use e-mail in lieu of stuffing expensive envelopes.

Not only can people hear directly from candidates without a media filter, but surfers can become politically active simply by forwarding an e-mail to a friend.

Karen Ehrlich found that out inadvertently. She does not consider herself a political activist by any means. But when her sister forwarded her an e-mail listing Texas' low rankings in healthcare, environmental, and education spending, she decided other people should have that information. She sent it to her friends and asked them to "Forward this to every person of voting age." With the speed of the "love bug," the e-mail whizzed across the country.

"I had no idea it would generate this kind of response," says the healthcare worker in Felton, Calif.

Ms. Ehrlich admits she's not exactly sure where her sister got the information, but she trusts her sister, so she trusts the e-mail. Others may have less faith.

"I don't know what the source is, so I wouldn't use it," says Andy Brack, a political Internet strategist who's putting his expertise to work in his run for Congress.

Like almost every other candidate, the first thing you see as you download BrackforCongress.com, is a cookie urging you to get involved. You can donate, sign up to volunteer, read about Mr. Brack's background - and you can also follow his "walk across the district," 20 miles every weekend.

"That's about as low-tech as you can get," says Brack, who is running for South Carolina's First District. "But there's a high-tech component to it as well. I always send out an e-mail, 'Here's where we are this weekend, come join us!' "

That falls in line with his philosophy that the Web is more about building relationships than just providing information.

But Brack is also worried that the Internet could be used for some negative politicking, compared with 1996, when sites tended to be benign places where viewers could read candidates' bios. "It's moving away from a candidate thing to a political consultants' thing," says Brack.

He's still optimistic that more and more people will go on the Internet to get information about candidates and hopefully use it to reconnect with the political system and the people in it - if not join them for a weekend hike through the country.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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