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Adam Clayton Powell of the US-based Freedom Forum
The internet is going to be important in ways be can't imagine just yet
 real 28k

Adam Clayton Powell
This could become a very powerful orgsanising tool
 real 28k

banner Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 14:34 GMT
Putting the 'e-' into election 2000

Using the web to mobilise supporters

By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

For the prospective presidential candidate a .com after your name has become as much an essential part of the campaign armoury as the campaign bus and the baby-kissing tour.

At present about 40% of US households are thought to be online - by 2005 that figure is projected to have risen as high as 91%.

The lexicon of campaign terminology includes more and more "e-" prefixes and many are predicting that the dawn of the first "e-"lection is not far off.

Internet fundraising
Bill Bradley: $1.2m
John Mcain: $1m
Al Gore: $910,000
George W Bush: $180,000
Of course there is nothing particularly new about politicians going online. Both Clinton and Dole had websites in the '96 election, although they were little more than net versions of the brochures stuffed in mailboxes across the country.

Adam Clayton Powell, Vice President of Technology for the US-based Freedom Forum, says what's different this time is that candidates are actively using the net as "a tool to mobilise both supporters and cash."

Democrat challenger Bill Bradley, for example, is claiming a net first for raising more than $1m through online contributions.

Republican John McCain, meanwhile, is using mass email shots to rally volunteers across the country responding at the grassroots level to challenges from his rivals.

Net pioneer

Unlikely as it may seem, Mr Powell says one of the first to successfully employ these tactics was former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura in his campaign for the governorship of Minnesota.

Governor Jesse Ventura: Pioneer in the subtle art of internet campaigning
His core constituency, males between the ages of 18 and 34, coincidentally happened to be the most "net savvy" section of the population.

Ventura's campaign aides were able to use these to mobilise a discrete but ultimately effective network of grassroots supporters.

As a political tool the net is a relatively cheap way of spreading your message and selling your candidacy.

But, says Mr Powell, "we haven't yet seen how it's going to play out in terms of a general election with tens of millions of people voting online."

Proponents of e-politics argue that the net offers immense scope for popular empowerment, letting voters have a direct say on the way they are being governed.

Talking back

The prospect of online voting may bring younger voters back into the political process
For them the net opens the way to the kind of participatory democracy envisaged by the ancient Greeks back when the term "dot" was more applicable to the year than a website address.

If and when online voting comes of age elections need not take place only every four years, but could do so continuously - almost on demand - with the click of a mouse.

The interactive capabilities of the net could radically transform the political scene, a prospect which might intimidate campaign managers.

After all, isn't it easier to stick to a one-way flow of carefully-crafted spin than muddy a candidate's route to high office with the multifarious opinions of ordinary voters.

"Almost all of them are scared stiff" says Mr Powell. "The uncontrolled nature where anybody, anywhere in the world can ask any question - campaign consultants don't like that."

New e-lectorate?

Nonetheless a growing number of websites are making inroads in this direction.

Does the internet herald a new dawning of democracy?, for example, brings together voters' questions with answers from their prospective representatives. Meanwhile, run by former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, polls users on key issues and then bombards congressmen with the results.

So does this mean that the electorate will suddenly become more interested in politics?

There is certainly a case for saying that America has become disillusioned with the political process - just take a look at the steady slump in voting figures in recent years.

But whether that reflects disillusionment with politicians or politics in general is a matter for debate.

Being able to vote online from your own home may ease the chore of going to a polling station, but will it actually bring people back into the political process?

There's no shortage of information online for the people who want it, but convincing those who might otherwise avoid politics to click on the site and read it is another matter entirely.

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Vote USA 2000 Contents

See also:
10 Jan 00 |  Vote USA 2000
Opening up the digital democracy
07 Apr 99 |  Americas
US elections: The 'Net effect
29 Aug 99 |  Americas
The Internet Revolution: A connected world

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