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Mixed Media

Internet | Books

INTERNET

Digital Democracy
The Internet has done little to change Americans’ voting habits. This may come as a surprise to someone who has recently logged on to fire off an activist e-mail through the Sierra Club’s Web site, read an inside-the-beltway analysis of congressional races from the Washington Post online, or thrown themselves into a freewheeling political discussion at an Internet magazine like Salon.

But according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, although nearly one in five Americans tapped into the Internet for election news and information in 2000—up from 4 percent in 1996—that hasn’t translated into more folks heading to the polls. And while the Internet may offer innumerable ways to foster an informed electorate, George Washington University’s Democracy Online Project found that the largest form of "civic participation" among Internet users in 2000 was, at 54 percent, exchanging e-mail jokes about candidates or campaigns.

Bruce Bimber, director of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that the Internet alone can’t be expected to change Americans’ historically woeful turnout on election day. But it’s proven itself indispensable for educating those already politically inclined and for groups like the Sierra Club that advocate public policy.

"The Internet reinforces to a far larger extent than it renews," Bimber and colleague Richard Davis write in their study, "The Internet in Campaign 2000." "The problem is that less informed, less engaged voters—who some would say need it most—are least likely to visit [political] sites."

For the motivated, sites like opensecrets.org, which sorts through political contributions in a hundred different ways, the League of Conservation Voters (www.lcv.org), with its highly regarded legislator "scorecard," and Project Vote Smart (www.vote-smart.org), which tracks candidates and legislation nationwide, assemble eye-opening political data in one convenient place. It’s all there for the taking.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club find the Internet provides a quick and inexpensive way to advocate positions and communicate with members. The Club’s Action Network, for example, generated more than 7,000 e-mails and faxes last April supporting an effort by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to block a move that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Bimber says that one of the Internet’s unsung strengths is its ability to throw open the doors of so-called special-interest organizations like the Sierra Club, whose programs and efforts a citizen might have encountered in the past only after becoming a member. Now, a casual Internet search of an issue such as national-forest logging can lead citizens to the Club’s doorstep. Once the Club has educated them on the topic at hand, they may just stick around—and turn into activists. Bimber says this "de-institutionalizing" will help environmental groups reach what he calls "light greens"—the majority of Americans who consider themselves environmentalists, but can’t necessarily be counted on to vote or take action on environmental issues.

For many people, the Internet will remain untapped until technology improves. Only 21 percent of America’s 24 million Internet-equipped homes have high-speed access—which is one reason most Web surfing occurs at the workplace. And then there’s the seemingly intractable competition with television for our hearts, minds, and butts. Though interactive television is still a long way off, efforts like Rock the Vote, which registered a half million new voters by coordinating TV programming and the Internet, show that even the sofa can be conquered. When it is, we’ll truly enter the age of the netizen. —Reed McManus

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