Ready, Teddy? You're Online

Remember the electronic town hall? It seemed like science fiction when candidates first talked about online politicking in the '92 campaign. But two years later, more and more politicians are venturing into cyberspace to press virtual flesh. Both houses of Congress as well as various state and local governments have Internet addresses where voters can check out position papers and legislative records. The Democratic and Republican national committees are online, too. And individual politicians are logging on to big commercial services like Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online to debate voters and measure the public pulse.

The advantages for politicians are clear: no big-bucks TV ads, no sore throats after too many speeches, no dreary fund-raising dinners. Online, a techno-savvy political neophyte can get as much -- if not more -- attention as a well-established incumbent without cyberskills. Bob Massie, a 38-year-old relatively unknown candidate for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, introduced himself to many voters by posting his e-mail address on an America Online bulletin board. In cyberspace, says Massie, "people can find each other at relatively low cost."

Voters also have more direct access than on the old-fashioned campaign trail. Online, candidates can't hide behind a photo op; they have to answer questions (although there's no guarantee that they'll be any more forthright than they are in person). The range of questioners can go far beyond a few dozen jaded journalists on the campaign trail. A Prodigy spokesman says the service could provide a series of debates in which as many as 20,000 subscribers could line up with questions. Other services are also looking for ways to spur democracy. CompuServe's Congressgrams service even prompts voters for their addresses so they don't have to go to the trouble of try-ing to remember who represents them. (CompuServe prints out the notes, stuffs them in envelopes and mails them to Washington -- so voters can reach politicians who don't want to log on.)

But cyberpolitics has also created a new set of potential problems. There's no "fairness doctrine" governing the amount of time candidates get -- as there is in radio and TV campaigning. The Federal Communications Commission regulates broadcast politics, but FCC attorney Milt Gross says the agency has no plans to monitor the online world. Though it hasn't happened yet, online appearances could also trigger a call from the Federal Election Commission, which watches funding. If an online service offers a candidate free time, it could be viewed as a "contribution in kind," which pols can't accept from corporations.

Online sites run by governments can give an unfair advantage to officeholders. When Massachusetts Gov. William Weld set up a "Governor's Forum" on America Online in July, political opponents criticized the partisan tone of his postings in what was supposed to be a nonpartisan forum. One "folder," labeled "Hot Topics," included strongly worded statements on welfare reform and a state anti-crime package. Included was this passage from Weld, who is up for re-election: "People in this state know that the death penalty will save lives, deter crime, and, in some cases, is the right thing to do. We hope the voters will send legislators to Beacon Hill [the state capitol] who know that, too." Massie says voters may wander into the forum looking for unbiased information and end up with campaign propaganda -- a charge Weld's office denies.

There's a bias among users as well. Although the net is often touted as a democratic medium, voters who log on are likely to be more affluent, better educated and younger than the rest of the public. That's especially true of the users of commercial online services, who pay average monthly fees of $15 to $20. When Michigan Gov. John Engler began presiding over an America Online forum in December, he was attacked by nonsubscribers to the service because they couldn't use it without joining. Engler now also has an Internet site that is accessible to many more people. Still, it's hardly a representative sampling. While a third of all American homes have computers, industry observers say probably only about 5 percent are online.

In the online world -- where people are often known by noms de net rather than their real names -- it's sometimes hard to tell grass roots from AstroTurf. In one forum on America Online, seemingly random citizens plug their favorite pols. Talking about Jeb Bush, George Bush's son and a candidate for Florida governor, one poster wrote: "Jeb isn't talking better management for the failed programs we have now -- he brings fresh and new ideas to the table." The "fan" turned out to be a Bush volunteer.

In this early stage of cyberpolitics, everyone's scrambling to make up rules. After the Weld controversy in Massachusetts, America Online set up "Capital Connection"; any candidate can post clearly identified press releases and position papers. All 50 states now have a separate campaign message board. At CapAccess, a free Washington, D.C., community network, founder Taylor Walsh offers space to any local candidate. So far, the only one online is Bruce Adams, who is running for county executive in Montgomery County, Md., although several others hope to be online soon. Walsh says that while he believes in open access, he thinks online providers themselves should make the decision -- not the government.

A lot of politicians are still finding their way in cyberspace. The Senate doesn't allow incumbents to use its taxpayer-supported Internet site 60 days before an election. And senators who want to stay online can set up shop at anoth-er net location. Virginia Sen. Charles Robb maintains a site at CapAccess, where voters can look up speeches and Robb's legislative record. Robb's press secretary, Peggy Wilhide, says that her boss has not decided whether to shut down the CapAccess site. "This is kind of confusing because we're breaking new ground," she says. "If there's even the appearance of a conflict, we'll shut it down." But Sen. Edward Kennedy, also up for re-election, has already frozen his non-Senate net sites -- even though he's not required to -- in order to comply with the "spirit" of the Senate rule. For the duration, Kennedy's campaign has set up an online headquarters where volunteers can sign up. "There's definitely a great audience for us out there," says a Kennedy staffer.

Like many pols of a certain age, Kennedy doesn't actually sit down to the keyboard himself. Staffer Chris Casey says he has given his boss a net tour, but Kennedy isn't ready for prime-time online yet. Then there's Sam Coppersmith, a 39-year-old Arizona congressman who travels with a PowerBook and reads e-mail on the plane. Coppersmith says that being online has given him a whole new constituency outside his district. The net may have a long way to go before it's as powerful as a communications tool as television and newspapers, but politicians are quickly learning that ignoring cyberspace could be dangerous to their electoral health.

Ready, Teddy? You're Online | News