by Rebecca Fairley Raney

E-democracy: The electronic precinct

While I was growing up, I got some good training in political communication. My grandfather, D.G. Fairley, was a politician in the back country of north Missouri. He lived and campaigned in a county that was so remote, the Mennonites only discovered it a decade ago. When he went to town, it took him two hours to walk from one end of the street to the other. He felt obliged to speak with everyone he saw.

I wondered, in the early days of the Internet, whether the clean, uncluttered system of online communication could bring back the spirit of my grandfather's politicking. The answer, of course, is not so hard to predict: It all depends on the politician.

Here are some stories that explored this issue:

"E-Mail Finds the Rare Ear in Congress"

IN theory, e-mail should be a useful tool for democracy, an easy and prompt way for citizens to reach their representatives. And with the fear and disruption resulting from the discovery of anthrax in Congressional mail, e-mail might seem an ideal alternative.

But although many members of Congress asked constituents to switch to e-mail after mail delivery to their offices was halted in October, the trend on Capitol Hill seems to be a backlash against the medium.

The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2001

"Congress Not Yet Plugging In To E-Mail"

EASE and speed make e-mail a slick tool for democracy, a pipeline between politicians and people that's less trouble than a letter and more formal than a phone call.

But it's a bad way to contact Congress.

The New York Times on the Web, June 15, 1996

"Whatever the Future Holds, Congress Will Get There Slowly"

AT THE extreme, e-mail could bring direct democracy -- a way to eliminate Congress altogether, with people voting directly on bills.

The New York Times on the Web, June 15, 1996

"E-Mail Unleashes Capitol Hill Technophobia"

SEND e-mail to a member of Congress, and most likely the response will say:

"I am pleased to be a part of this effort to offer citizens a quick and efficient way to communicate with their representatives in Congress. Be sure to include your mailing address in your Internet message."

The New York Times on the Web, June 15, 1996

"Flood of E-Mail Credited With Halting U.S. Bank Plan"

THOUGH e-mail has historically been viewed as ineffective in influencing government, Federal bank regulators withdrew a proposal on Tuesday to monitor individuals' bank transactions because of hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages that protested the proposal, federal officials said.

The New York Times on the Web, March 24, 1999

"Flash Campaigns: Online Activism at Warp Speed"

IN THE swell of online political activism these days, whether the issue is children with guns or Kosovo, cutting-edge campaigns are posting a directive as powerful as any slogan:

"This campaign is based solely on word of mouth. It's CRUCIAL that you tell others. To transmit a brief letter to your e-mail circle, just click here."

So-called "flash campaigns," focused on hot news topics and making use of e-mail chain letters and online petitions, are erupting on the Internet.

The New York Times on the Web, June 3, 1999

"A Utopian With a Twinkle and an Idea: Online Democracy"

IT'S difficult to find a year that was not interesting for Jim Warren, but 1977 was as interesting a year as any.

That was when his commune broke up because everyone got married, and the year he accidentally made a fortune.

So he bought some land and built a house. It became a place for many things: the headquarters of the first West Coast computer fair, the office of a rabble-rousing community newspaper and the command center for Dr. Dobb's Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia (considered the first software magazine). If you could place the cradle of electronic democracy in real space, it would be there.

The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2000

"Arkansas Congressman Takes a Free-Speech Risk"

JUST a few days after Representative Asa Hutchinson set up an online forum for constituents, someone on the Congressman's staff dashed into his office with an alert. A message had appeared on the forum under the title "presidency crimes." It was posted by Hutchinson's 14-year-old son, Seth.

As the first member of Congress to offer an online forum on his Web site, the Arkansas Republican is testing the rapids of a medium in which the message cannot be controlled.

The New York Times on the Web, Feb. 10, 1998

"Santa Monica Seeking a Return to Online Civic Forum of Yore"

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- When Santa Monica City Hall first offered online forums nine years ago, the major topic of discussions in this upscale community was the homeless. When citizens sought ways to help people get jobs, Donald Paschal, who was logging on from a public terminal, offered advice from a unique perspective.

Paschal had been known to the online group of city officials and residents as an articulate, thoughtful writer.

He would like to get a job, Paschal wrote, but he was dirty, he had nowhere to wash his clothes and nowhere to store his belongings. He was, in fact, homeless. People were astonished. They organized to help their online compatriot.

The New York Times, Sept. 8, 1998

"Libertarians Find Like Minds, and Donations, Online"

DAVID Crump wasn't looking for a political philosophy. He just liked the Internet. But when he saw a reference on an e-mail discussion list to Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate for President in 1996, he decided to investigate further.

The New York Times on the Web, March 11, 1999

"Mailing List Feeds Minnesota's Politically Minded"

WHAT was a former St. Paul city councilman's drug of choice 30 years ago? Why are people upset about a breast-pump bill? Should government officials be using state-supported e-mail to mix with the public?

Like it or not, in Minnesota, government officials do use e-mail to mix with the public. In fact, officials make up half the subscribers of the mailing list, MN-Politics, a place where the politically minded in Minnesota have been feeding for years.

The New York Times on the Web, March 2, 1998

"Lobbyist Turns to Internet to Influence Policy Makers"

RICHARD Cook has never forgotten his frantic years as a young Congressional aide in the 1960's. The challenge of the job, which required constant research to track dozens of issues, has not changed since then, but the tools have.

Now, as a lobbyist for the satellite company PanAmSat, Mr. Cook has started a campaign on the Internet that is directed toward busy Congressional aides. He contends that PanAmSat's competitors are outspending him 5 to 1 on the issue of privatization of access to satellite services and that the Internet is giving his client a better chance for equal access to important Congressional offices.

The New York Times, Nov. 15, 1999

(links to archive)

"Internet May Reshape California Ballot Initiatives"

LOS ANGELES -- These days, Californians are hard-pressed to enter a grocery store without hearing the cry, "Sir! Ma'am! Can I get your signature? Are you registered to vote?" Shoppers are regularly accosted by signature collectors, aggressive pitchmen who get paid by the name. They are the by-product of a high-priced ballot initiative system that has outgrown its intent to defeat the influence of special interests in politics.

Now, if high-tech political activists have their way, these sidewalk hawkers may eventually be replaced by the Internet as a means to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures required to get a measure on the California ballot.

The New York Times on the Web, Feb. 5, 1999

"Net Sped the Case Against California Commissioner"

THE political corruption case in California against Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush carried all the customary hallmarks: whistle-blowers, angry taxpayers, dramatic hearings and outrage voiced by the politician in question.

But the investigation gained additional momentum because of a new element: the Internet. Investigators and grass-roots organizers used the Internet to accelerate the pace of the investigation and pressure Mr. Quackenbush to leave office. He offered his resignation Wednesday.

The New York Times on the Web, June 29, 2000

"Beyond Campaign Sites: Politicians Seek Support for Legislation Online"

ON The Flat Tax Home Page, Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, makes his point simply. The page invites people to use a special tax calculator to find out how much they would pay under his proposed flat-tax plan, and compare the results to their current tax burden. If they like, they can sign up to receive e-mail updates on how the House Majority Leader's proposals are faring. 

The New York Times on the Web, April 18, 1999

"Many Sites Are Trolling For Voters"

THIS election year, if you visit a Web site created by any group with political interests, you will probably have a chance to register to vote as well.

The New York Times, Aug. 31, 2000

"Minnesota's New Chief Pushes Net as Political Tool"

JESSE Ventura, who proved he could generate widespread popular appeal with his rise from professional wrestler to Governor of Minnesota, has declared that he will use the Internet as a populist tool to muster support for legislation and to try to give the people an equal footing with lobbyists.

The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 29, 1999

"E-Mail Helps Longshot Candidate Send a Message to Congress"

CHARLES H. Collins ran for President in 1996, and he plans to run again in 2000. He does 27 hours of talk radio a week, and, with a little technical help, he sends hundreds of e-mail messages to Congress every day.

Collins's e-mail effort, called Netline-to-Congress, is a two-man operation that capitalizes on the speed and reach of the Internet to create something of an electronic bully pulpit -- albeit one with semi-democratic undertones.

The New York Times on the Web, July 14, 1998

"More Members Are Plugged In, But Few Are Making Connections"

WASHINGTON — As the United States Congress becomes increasingly involved in regulating the Internet, most representatives show little facility in using the technology to communicate with the public.

The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 15, 1998

"Spam Gets the Message Out"

WHILE the potential for e-mail to serve as a powerful, simple communication tool has eluded many members of Congress, the benefits are becoming clear to some. In fact, legislators are starting to spam people.

The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 15, 1998

"Technology Filters the Flow"

IN MANY Congressional offices, technology has cleaned up the mess that e-mail creates. Web-based communication systems, or "Web mail," in use for a little more than a year, automatically track messages, block non-constituent mail, promise privacy and stop spam.

But the use of the technology raises a new question: Should members of Congress cut themselves off from online contact with people they do not represent?

The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 15, 1998

"A Secure Web Link to Capitol Hill"

IN THE Silicon Valley, where high standards for electronic communication prevail, people who e-mail their representative in Congress have been particularly perturbed to find that responses come through the Postal Service or with several weeks' delay.

Now they can get an "Annagram" on-line instead.

The New York Times on the Web, July 4, 1996

More Internet/politics coverage:

Internet campaigning

In the early days, scholars watched the Web for signs that it could compete with television as a tool of persuasion. But campaign managers quickly learned that the value of the medium lay elsewhere.

(33 stories)

E-government and campaign donors online

Local, state and federal governments have pushed information and services online at a rapid pace. That push is changing people's perceptions of government.

(22 stories)

Electronic voting

In the late 1990s, advocates of Internet voting lobbied to get their systems adopted by election officials. Then came the 2000 election and the national focus on the integrity of voting technology. The questions about security raised by the early opponents of e-voting are the same questions that opponents of electronic systems are raising now.

(11 stories)


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