Although he was far from the first politician to go online, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was the one who really legitimized the Internet as a political tool.

At the end of his first presidential debate with Bill Clinton in 1996, Dole – the World War II veteran and former majority leader of the U.S. Senate – recited the address of his campaign’s Web site and encouraged people to visit.

It was the first time a candidate had ever mentioned a Web site in a presidential debate and the surest sign possible that the Internet had arrived on the political scene.

Never mind that Dole got the address wrong (he left out one of the dots, a crucial mistake). It was the thought that counted.

Only four years later as the 2000 campaign blasts into full swing in the United States, it’s de rigueur for candidates seeking offices ranging from president to dog catcher to have Web sites. Republican Steve Forbes even announced his candidacy for president on the Internet. Virtually all political parties, ranging from the largest to the most obscure, have Web sites, as do thousands of interest groups, think tanks, trade associations, labor unions, agencies at all levels of government, news organizations that provide political reports, polling firms, private individuals, and just about everyone else involved in the political process.

Perhaps most telling, candidates in their stump speeches have added the Internet to their discussions of enduring issues such as welfare, education, and the economy. They’re discussing topics such as electronic privacy, free speech online, protecting children from online pornography, and Internet taxation – all issues that didn’t even appear on the political radar only a few years ago.

Of course, some candidates have stumbled over the Internet. Those who flooded the Internet with messages touting their candidacies earned the wrath rather than the votes of Internet users who hate the proliferation of unsolicited e-mail known as spam. And Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was blasted after he claimed credit for creating the Internet.

Lawmakers in Congress and statehouses nationwide also have noticed the Internet. They’ve introduced hundreds of bills to regulate it – or to keep government out of the regulation business.

The use of the Internet as a political tool is not limited to the United States. Political organizations, candidates, and governments around the world have embraced the communications opportunities that the Internet presents. In fact, some of the most interesting political uses of the Internet are occurring in countries such as China, where it has opened – if only slightly – the door that previously blocked all public debate.

The Internet’s Impact in Politics

So what does it all mean? Will the Internet become a great democratizing influence that levels the playing field, boosts political participation, creates new opportunities for dialogue between politicians and those they represent, gives voice to the speechless, and generally restores the political process in the United States, if not around the world? Or is all the fancy talk just a lot of hype?

The answer depends upon whom you ask. In recent books about the Internet’s impact on politics, two respected authors came to diametrically opposing conclusions. Gary W. Selnow, a professor of communication at San Francisco State University, took the "pro" position in his book Electronic Whistle-Stops:

[T]he Internet is shaping up to be a serious international medium that will radically alter politics in the United States and abroad, and what’s more, it will impact society on a larger level. It stands to change political and ideological alignments, the substance of news available to the population, and the relationships between political leaders and the people.

Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, took the opposite view in his book The Web of Politics:

The most likely Internet users will continue to be the affluent, the most common users of Internet political information will be the already politically interested, and those who will use the Internet for political activity will be primarily those who are already politically active. And that is why the Internet will not lead to the social and political revolution so widely predicted.

The reality is likely somewhere in the middle of these two viewpoints. When you are assessing the Internet’s impact on politics, it’s crucial to remember that the Internet is a tool – nothing more, nothing less. As with any tool, its power depends upon the context in which it’s used. A hammer is a great tool for pounding nails but a lousy one for leveling fresh cement. So it is with the Internet.

What the Internet does best is distribute information. Without question, the Internet has made a huge range of political information available that previously was difficult or impossible to obtain. You can find out who’s giving money to political candidates, check the voting records of your representatives in Congress, read the texts of bills being considered by Congress, read the full texts of speeches by candidates (without the news media serving as a filter), subscribe to e-mail alerts on issues ranging from abortion to gun control, find advocacy groups that work on issues that interest you, read political news from a wide variety of media outlets, and much more.

Release of some of this information can have major consequences. For example, the House of Representatives changed the political landscape forever when it placed on the Internet the full text of the report by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr regarding his investigation of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Millions of people read all or parts of the report within days of its release.

The Internet also is good at mobilizing people, at least in some cases. The most notable example is the 1998 election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota. Although some commentators have incorrectly attributed Ventura’s victory to the Internet, online communication clearly played a role in his election. Perhaps most important was the Jesse Net, an e-mail alert list that had 3,000 subscribers by election day.

In an article following the election, Ventura’s webmaster, Phil Madsen, said the Internet was only one tool in the campaign’s arsenal:

Without the Internet, we would have lost the election. The same applies to all other components of the campaign. Take away the debate inclusion, public campaign finance money, campaign office, telephone team, good media relations, public policy research, campaign leadership, quality candidates, a staff that worked well together, eager and hard-working volunteers, etc., etc., etc., and we would have lost as well.

The Internet is especially good at mobilizing people around issues. In March 1999 the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation said an Internet e-mail campaign caused the agency to withdraw a proposed "Know Your Customer" policy. The policy, which was aimed at detecting money laundering, would have required banks to monitor customers’ accounts and report any unusual activity to federal regulators.

The agency received 257,000 comments about the proposed policy, with about 205,000 arriving by e-mail. The overwhelming majority denounced the proposal as an invasion of privacy. The Libertarian Party was a major force behind the unprecedented number of comments. It launched a campaign opposing the policy through its Web site and an e-mail alert list, among other venues. By the end of the campaign, 140,000 people had subscribed to a new party e-mail list about privacy issues, according to the New York Times.

The Internet also is good at helping groups or individuals publicity express their views, no matter how modest their resources. Free Internet access and Web space are available to anyone who can access a computer at home, school, work, or a library, making it possible to create a simple Web site at no charge. This is a boon for third parties, smaller organizations with limited budgets, and individuals who otherwise might not be able to get their message out because of high printing and distribution costs for traditional political literature.

This is not to say, however, that the Internet levels the playing field between those who are well funded and those of modest means. Simply creating a Web site does not guarantee that anyone will visit. Well-funded site owners can buy advertising for their site and engage in a wide range of other promotional activities that draw in visitors – and cost money. The well-established also have a built-in advantage simply because the public tends to gravitate to what it knows. Thus Al Gore’s campaign site automatically receives far more hits than Web sites operated by any third-party presidential candidate.

The Internet is lousy at creating true two-way communication between candidates and voters. Sure, most candidates’ Web sites ask visitors to vote in online polls, send in their views by e-mail, or engage in other alleged "interactivity." Unfortunately, it’s all a sham. The dirty secret is that campaigns ignore the polls and e-mail opinions from online visitors – except to harvest e-mail addresses for future campaign mailings. Results from online polls are not scientific and thus are of no use to a campaign, and candidates lack the time and resources to engage in one-on-one e-mail conversations with voters. A few campaigns have instituted online "town meetings," where a handful of visitors get to interact with the candidate online, but such opportunities are still rare.

The Internet also fails miserably (at least so far) in creating useful forums for members of the public to discuss political issues. Dozens of Usenet newsgroups allow people to express their views about various political topics, but they commonly erupt in flame wars that scare away any rational discussion.

The Internet and Voting

A huge push is underway to allow voting online. Proponents claim that instituting Internet voting would re-ignite interest in politics, remove obstacles to voting, and vastly expand the number of people who cast ballots. Only 49 percent of the voting age population voted in the 1996 presidential election, according to the Federal Election Commission, so low turnout is a serious problem in American elections.

But even setting aside the numerous problems associated with on-line voting – security breaches that could lead to massive fraud and lack of computer access by the poor being just two – there is no evidence that allowing Internet voting will actually increase voter participation.

The best evidence comes from the National Voter Registration Act, which went into effect in 1995. The law allows people to mail in their voter registration forms or to register when they obtain driver’s licenses or apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, Medicaid, and other social services. The law was intended to make voter registration easier.

So far the results have been underwhelming. The Census Bureau found that the percentage of the voting-age population registered to vote actually dropped 2.3 percent between 1992 and the 1996 election, the first that took place after the law took effect. The Federal Election Commission, using slightly different statistical methods, found a 1.8 percent increase in registration in the 43 states and the District of Columbia covered by the new law.

Whichever number you accept, making registration easier had little effect on voter registration numbers. The same would be true of Internet voting. Why? Because the reasons people don’t bother to vote have nothing to do with the supposed difficulty of the process. Rather, they stem from disenchantment with the political system.

The Census Bureau documented this attitude in the 1996 election, when it asked people who were registered but didn’t appear at the polling place why they failed to do so. Some 16.6 percent said they weren’t interested in the election, and 13 percent said they didn’t like the candidates. Another 21.5 percent said they had no time off or were too busy (another way of saying they weren’t interested), and 4.4 percent forgot to vote (again, a way of saying they weren’t interested). Added together, those four responses accounted for 55.5 percent of all people who didn’t vote. Only 4.3 percent said they failed to vote because they had no transportation to the polls.

What these numbers point to is a lack of interest in voting, not a lack of opportunity. But with a political system that churns out Tweedledee and Tweedledum candidates, campaigns that focus on not making mistakes instead of articulating a vision, a political "debate" geared toward polarization instead of consensus building, and a corrupt campaign finance system that makes elected officials the servants of special interests instead of their constituents, is it any wonder that people don’t vote? Fixing these and other systemic problems in American politics would likely boost voter participation, but they have nothing to do with the Internet.



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