When Steve Forbes announced his presidential candidacy on the Internet this week, he meant it as a mark of distinction, an online first.
But while most Internet enthusiasts dismissed that "first" as a distinction without much meaning, they nonetheless saw significance in the event.
It underscored that in just a few years, the Internet has gone from the periphery to the mainstream in American politics. An oddity in 1994 and still noteworthy in 1996, it will be a central, mainstream tool for candidacy and issue campaigns in 2000, say most analysts.
Furthermore, not too many years beyond the next election, the Internet will make the political process a lot easier for voters by, in effect, bringing the polling station to their laptops, experts predict.
To that end, California convened a task force this week to develop a feasibility plan for online voting. Florida is already writing regulations for Internet voting and the legislatures in Washington and Minnesota are considering bills calling for an examination of online ballots.
Yet while the Internet's role in politics is burgeoning, there is also a reality check going on. For those who hoped technology could arrest the nationwide decline in voter participation, regarded by many as the single greatest threat to American democracy, the early evidence is not promising.
The hope was that the Internet would deliver civic affairs to young adults in a form they prefer, thus encouraging them to vote.
Also, there was an expectation that the deeper layers of information the Internet can serve up might encourage potential voters either confused or turned off by the warfare and sound-bite characteristics of campaign politics in the conventional media.
But the Internet "really doesn't have any effect" on turnout, says Bruce Bimber, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who draws that conclusion from survey research on voting habits.
Voter participation unaffected, so far
When and if voters are permitted to register and vote online, the Internet could bump voter participation, he says. But so far, simply as a tool of information and communication, the Internet is not getting nonvoters to the polls. "Just getting information into the hands of the young is not the answer to getting them to vote," says Mr. Bimber.
It's the proactive voters and the political actors themselves who are eating up the Internet, says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. In other words, the Internet is simply intensifying the involvement of those already inclined to vote or participate.
With several years of experience, candidates and campaigns are growing more sophisticated in their use of the Internet, says Steve Clift, board chair of Minnesota E-Democracy, a nonprofit Internet advocacy group. "The more local and the more interactive" a political Web site, "the more added value" it brings to a campaign, says Mr. Clift, who in 1994 helped launch what he claims was the nation's first election Web site.
Indeed, most experts in the field say use of the Internet is changing from being simply an electronic billboard for candidates and issue campaigns to a potent organizing tool.
For instance, Jesse Ventura's successful campaign for governor of Minnesota effectively used the Internet to organize and mobilize grass-roots volunteers behind his candidacy. He used it to establish a list of willing supporters, who were then contacted by electronic mailings for help in organizing rallies as well as raising funds.
For many, the Internet's greatest impact is in opening up politics to nontraditional players, like Governor Ventura, who either don't have the money or the organization or the backing of the political establishment to compete in the traditional way.
"The Internet is beginning to level the playing field between special interests and the general public," says Ms. Alexander. "As a tool," she says of the Internet, "it's just so accessible financially."
Money is no apparent obstacle for Mr. Forbes, a wealthy publisher, but his emphasis on the Internet is consistent with its appeal as a tool for outside candidates in search of grass-roots support, say analysts.
Looking beyond 2000, the Internet is expected to slowly make its way into the political arena as a vehicle for voting. The California task force convening this week hopes to finish a feasibility study of online voting by the end of the year.
Obstacles to Web democracy
Most experts expect security and fraud issues to present greater obstacles than the technology. Advocates contend that online commerce is proving the Internet can be secure. Yet others say perception is all important and that there is not enough social confidence in computer technology to proceed rapidly to a system that would allow voters to register and cast ballots from their own computers.
Even advocates of the use of the Internet in politics are wary of going too rapidly down a road where the main objective is to make it easier and easier to vote.
"We don't necessarily want to get to the point where the attitude is 'Let's vote on everything,' " says Alexander. Echoing a sentiment held by many that the proliferation of initiatives may discourage voter turnout, she says, "We already have too much democracy in California."