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FRIDAY REPORT

Untangling the Web of Politics

A growing number of sites about the election are on the Internet and usage is increasing. Voters are finding more facts than spin and more information than rhetoric.

October 23, 1998|LISA WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can't decide which gubernatorial candidate is best for the environment? Curious about where state Assembly contenders get their money? Want the skinny on the ballot measures but don't want to muddle through pages and pages of fine print?

An alternative is as close as a computer. The Internet is one way for California voters to arm themselves with information before they go to the polls in 11 days. Going beyond the candidates' self-promotion and cutting through the complex governmentese of ballot measures provided in the state-produced voter guide, a growing number of election information Web sites have been launched.

Light on graphics but heavy on information, these sites forgo the bells and whistles such as animation and vivid illustrations that many Web sites employ to hold users' attention. Instead, they rely on making information easy to find and digest.

A study by the California Voter Foundation found that the number of California campaign and election sites grew from three in 1994 to more than 200 this year. "I remember typing 'voter' or 'voting' into [an Internet] search engine a few years ago and getting nothing," said Frances Talbott-White, a board member of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles.

The league's Los Angeles site, which is due to be launched in the coming week, will contain nonpartisan information on local races and initiatives and links to official statements.

"A growing number of people are getting their information from the Web," Talbott-White said. "The Web brings together information from other sources, such as government and media."

One of the first organizations to offer such information online was the California Voter Foundation. President Kim Alexander established it in 1994 when she was 28 to do online voter registration. The nonprofit group evolved from an online voter registration project of the California secretary of state's office.

"We wanted to explore how the Internet could be used to better educate and engage voters," Alexander said.

Internet Use Increases

But voter information sites still have a long way to go in reaching a massive number of people. "There was a lot of talk about how 1998 [election year] would be the year of the Internet, but that hasn't happened," Alexander said. "Change happens fast in technology but slow in politics. You have to view change over generations, not election cycles."

The numbers are growing rapidly, however. The foundation's Web site got 33,000 visits during the 1996 general election and 250,000 so far this year.

Alexander characterizes these visitors as "active voters" who go on the Internet knowing that they want to find political information. "My goal is to increase the quality of participation, not the quantity." Her organization provides information for "people who do care, not the apathetic ones," she said.

"It would take more than technology to get nonvoters to vote. The real barrier to participation is . . . cynicism," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press in Washington.

Voters who are temporarily out of the area and will vote by absentee ballot are among the people who have sent positive feedback to the League of Women Voters of California's Smart Voter site, said Trudell Een, project director.

"Everyone loves the site," Een said. "We don't know the age or occupation of people who have written to us, but we've gotten notes from people abroad who were voting by absentee ballot and from a mother whose son was going to be a first-time voter."

She said that a lot of traffic to the site has been to the ballot measure information. "People are starting to discuss [the measures] before they discuss the candidates. One of the strengths of the league is to take those measures and put them into an easy-reading guide, written at a sixth-grade level, that illustrates the pros and cons," she said.

Kohut said the Internet "is very good for getting news and information, more so for the local campaigns than the national ones because it's not so readily accessible in other places."

Since space on the Web is not as precious as broadcast time or as costly as mailing literature, political Web sites can provide a depth of information not available in traditional media. Vast amounts of material, such as news stories, polls, audio and video of candidate interviews and debates can be stored for retrieval.

The Election Connection site culls information from print and broadcast media. Among the multimedia resources available are audio files of KCRW-FM's public affairs program "Which Way L.A.?" with topics that include state ballot measures and the Los Angeles sheriff's race debate.

"It's a wonderful development," said Warren Olney, the show's host. "I get calls from teachers who have their kids listen to the show. [The students] think it's neat that they can get it on the Internet and listen to radio on the computer."

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