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Site cedes power to people

A user-controlled forum is clicking with lawmakers and affecting policy

June 18, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

ST. GEORGE, UTAH — As the 2008 U.S. presidential contenders struggle to mesh old-style politics with the fast-evolving Internet culture, the future of online politics may have already arrived in this green swale of a town two hours northeast of Las Vegas.

Steve Urquhart, a local lawyer and state legislator, launched wiki-based in January hoping to create a virtual town square where Utahans could debate issues coming before the Legislature.

Debate they did, creating an online forum between elected officials and their constituents that ultimately changed state policy.

"The language can be incendiary, but [the details] are in black and white for policymakers like me," said Republican state Rep. Keith Grover, who credits debate on the site for persuading him to vote for a controversial school voucher program -- which passed by one vote. "People have salient points, points that are founded in facts, not emotions."

Although the experiment was limited -- the issues were local in a lightly populated state -- experts say Politicopia is among the first websites to deliver on the Internet's potential to amplify individual voices and counter the political power of special-interest groups.

The potential effect for broader political discourse has stirred excitement among advocates who believe the Internet can be used to increase citizen participation in politics.

"Steve is at the vanguard of the future of American politics in the 21st century, where town halls, policy debates and civic involvement will happen on wikis, blogs, video-sharing and social networking sites," said Andrew Rasiej, a founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and an advisor to the Sunlight Foundation, both of which advocate more openness in political campaigns and government.

Politicopia is based on a user-controlled wiki system that allows anyone to join the discussion. Unlike activist groups such as, it does not push an agenda other than open discussion. Removing politicians from control of the debate gives it room to roam.

"I don't want it to be about me," Urquhart said. "I want it to be about politics."

At its heart, Politicopia has done what Web-savvy political watchers maintain the presidential candidates have yet to understand -- or have rejected. Political campaigns are determined to control the message from the top down, and strategists are leery of ceding even a little control to supporters.

The Barack Obama campaign, for example, had a public breakup last month with Joe Anthony, who created an Obama MySpace page in 2004. The parting occurred after the campaign sought control of the page and Anthony sought to get paid to maintain the page and its network of 160,000 "friends" (site parlance for network members).

In the end, Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) got the site -- and control of the message -- and Anthony kept the friends.

Most candidates use the Internet to simply broadcast their messages in another medium -- an electronic form of direct mail, with video. The message flows one way. Even social networking programs, in which campaigns help supporters form local grass-roots committees and raise funds, are horizontal. The information flows among supporters, not up to the policymakers.

Obama's campaign -- which many Web-watchers think is using the Internet most effectively among presidential candidates -- announced it was soliciting YouTube videos about people's efforts to "make this country better" and promised "to use the input from the submissions to help shape the agenda for the campaign over the course of the next several months."

At Politicopia, interested voters have already been engaged, with measurable results. They conduct their own legislative debates and leave both a record and an aggregation of voices to define an issue.

The technology advances the chat rooms that spiked in popularity a decade ago.

"Chat rooms are real-time technology in that you are engaged with people over the Internet in the here and now," Rasiej said. "Politicopia is more of a repository of ideas and discussions where issues can be debated and information can be added over time."

During the 45-day legislative session, which ended in mid-February, the online discussion swayed the votes of at least two state legislators on the school voucher measure. Urquhart thinks it also helped persuade legislators to shelve a proposal to have Utah issue a direct legal challenge to Roe vs. Wade.

Whereas Politicopia debate pushed the voucher decision to the right, he said, it pushed the abortion decision to the left.

"It moved the needle," said Urquhart, a conservative Republican who just began his fourth two-year term. "It helped improve the dialogue. I think that's what a lot of us are yearning for in politics today."

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