Topix.com tries to help voters sort through the Election 2010 muddle

The news and chat website Topix is unveiling a new Election 2010 section to generate data and discussion on races coast to coast. But political scientists view it with concern.

By , Staff writer

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    A screen capture of the topix Election 2010 start page.
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Election Day is just around the corner – do you know who and what you are voting for?

That question hangs like a scary, midterm exam for many Americans. How is a body to get through all that tiny print in the plump voter pamphlet with so many names and issues?

The team behind Topix, one of the largest online community news and information forums, asked the same question and today launched their answer: the Election 2010 section, a nationwide source of information about local races, from a sheriff in Kentucky to the Senate race in California.

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Enter your ZIP code and the system will produce local news and discussion groups about the various issues and candidates that will appear on your Nov. 2 ballot. The site is debuting with coverage in 18 states.

A 'town hall' for the 21st century

The site, which is funded in part by news organizations such as Gannett, McClatchy, and the Tribune Companies, culls data from local newspaper stories as well as officials. But it will be most useful because of the person-to-person interaction on the site, says CEO Chris Tolles.

“Your town has this information available, but where do you talk … where is the town hall any more?” he asks, noting that the site which allows people to share their views and knowledge about even the most local races. “Where do you go to mix it up, go back and forth with your fellow citizens, your neighbors and friends? That’s all online.”

The site also aggregates opinions on topical subjects relating to the election, such as the vote to legalize marijuana in California or the immigration law in Arizona.

While the site may be providing handy information, the self-selection of voices and opinions raises concerns among political scientists.

The chat about a key senatorial race in Pennsylvania was full of misspellings and inaccurate polling projections, notes Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political scientist at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“I am not a fan of blogs,” says the Fulbright scholar in mass media and politics. “I have seen too much inaccurate information being posted and then quoted as accurate.... But I do like that citizens are participating in politics. I just want to make sure that they are disseminating and receiving correct information."

Should Maine be red all over?

Other political scientists point out other problems. On the site's section about the legalization of marijuana, for example, the state of Maine is colored red, indicating support for Proposition 19, the California ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana. But only five people have voted in the online poll.

“That’s very skewed,” says Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. That kind of non-professional “polling” could have a real impact, leading people to think that many more people support this measure than actually is the case.”

The site is a work in progress, says Mr. Tolles, noting that it is only one part of a larger drive to bring important voter information into the digital age. As his team worked to extract the details of local races, he says he found that small town clerks and secretaries of state were not always helpful.

“We were told in so many words that they had no obligation to give us this information, and if we really wanted it we had to come in person and request it,” he says, adding with a wry note in his voice, “one woman actually said that the Internet does not represent the people and refused to give me any information.”

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