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THE CUTTING EDGE : The Digital Soapbox : Candidates and Groups Go On Line to Get Message Out

November 02, 1994|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Zeb Rice's mother, Kathleen Brown, decided to run for governor, the 23-year-old college student wrote a memo to the campaign explaining why it needed an Internet account. Cheap propaganda outlet. Direct access. Hip, future-looking image. The student vote.

It sounded good, but nobody could figure out what he was talking about. So he ended up doing it himself, "telnet-ing" into campaign headquarters from school in Maine, and later coming to Los Angeles to answer e-mail--a task he finds far preferable to dealing with "snail mail" or the phones.

Brown's early on-line excursions--her economic plan, the texts of her speeches and her bumper sticker are all accessible from her site on the Net--helped shape what has become California's first election year in cyberspace.

In a trend that political activists say could vastly increase the amount of information available to voters and even democratize its distribution, dozens of candidates and nonprofit political organizations across the country have set up podiums on the electronic frontier over the last few months.

Bill Clinton and George Bush may have made brief appearances on commercial on-line services two years ago--and Ross Perot used electronic bulletin boards to get his message out--but this year's political offerings are far more extensive.

True-believing on-line activists see in the electronic revolution the potential to transform the very nature of political debate. They like to point out that the form of communication provided by the medium is "many to many," as opposed to the telephone's "point to point" or the "point to many" of mass media such as radio, television and newspapers.

"Previous technologies kept power in the hands of the candidates," says Mark Bonchek, a graduate student at Harvard University who is writing his dissertation on how interactive media can be used to facilitate political participation. "In this context, you put all the information on line, and people get to browse and choose what they want to see. That's a shift in power as measured by control of information away from the campaign and toward the citizens."

California, home to Silicon Valley and an estimated 1 million Internet users, is at the forefront of the on-line electoral activity. Last week, the California secretary of state's office said it has teamed up with Digital Equipment Corp. to provide the first real-time election returns on the World Wide Web, a portion of the Internet that can display pictures and graphics.

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The full text of the California ballot pamphlet, which the state spends about $5 million printing and sending out to voters, is stored on the DEC computer, along with additional information on each candidate. Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller said 21,000 computer users logged on to the site last week in one day alone.

More than 5,000 prospective voters have logged on to the nonprofit California Voter Foundation's Online Voter Guide, which offers candidate information on each of the nine statewide races, job descriptions of statewide offices and California Journal magazine reviews of propositions 181 through 188. It cost $20,000--half supplied by Pacific Bell--to put thousands of pages of information on line.

"This could be the beginning of a revolution in the way campaigns are conducted," says Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. "California has 14 million registered voters. To get a message out to voters, you have to raise a huge amount of money to use the mediums candidates traditionally use. My thought was, let's come up with an alternate way for candidates to disseminate information."

U.S. Senate candidate Dianne Feinstein as well as Libertarians Richard Boddie and Richard Rider each have a presence on the Internet, and e-mail can be sent to Gov. Pete Wilson at petewilson@delphi.com.

To be sure, only a small fraction of California's voters now have access to commercial on-line services such as Prodigy or the global network of computers known as the Internet. And those who do tend to be college students--most of whom are provided with free Internet accounts--or from high-income brackets.

And not all candidates are enamored with the Internet. Senate candidate Michael Huffington spent millions of his personal fortune on his campaign but has no significant presence on line. Wilson spokesman Dan Schnur said the governor felt an e-mail address was enough: "We've generally found that if people are interested in specific information they'll ask for it, and then we're happy to provide it by the regular means."

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But with the number of personal computers in homes expected to double over the next three years, the importance of on-line political activity can only grow. Political debate has traditionally been a mainstay of the techie set that has until recently dominated the on-line world.

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