Election 2008 finds its space online

When voters went to the polls in November 1971 – a non-presidential election year, of course – those really wanting to know the election results the moment they were counted gathered at the local newspaper office, knowing that television and radio reports wouldn’t come in until sometime after the media received them.

That’s the reason why, when my mother went into labor with me, they called the newspaper office to let my father know his first child was on the way. Now, every year around election time, I wonder if I’ll be celebrating my birthday with a trip to the polling booth.

But things have changed a lot since 1971 – particularly when it comes to election politics and voting, including how, and how quickly, we first learn about election results. Nowadays, many of us will first learn the results of our local elections – if not the national ones – on the Internet.

And while many voters find the “robo-calls” from candidates and other partisans to be annoying at best, many of us will have made our voting decisions with at least a little information garnered online or through some other technological method.

If you haven’t yet made your decisions, or even if you have, there’s a bevy of options as close as your nearest Internet browser.

Blogs become primary purveyors of political punditry

With the boom in Web-logs – “blogs” as they’re more commonly known – no longer is political reporting and commentary the sole bastion of professional journalists and politicos. In fact, with the growth of conservative-leaning talk radio and television news and the ongoing debate regarding the alleged bias of the media as a whole in recent years, people on both sides of the political aisle – and everywhere in between – have begun to set up their own places online for expressing their political points of view.

Some of these blogs have grown beyond the personal pages and man-on-the-street viewpoints the first blogs began as, becoming online publishing powerhouses along the lines of the liberal-leaning DailyKos and HuffingtonPost and, to a lesser degree, the conservative Red State and Captain’s Quarters. (Therein lying the tip of the iceberg of an apparent lesser level of connection between the Internet-savvy and technology-loving public with conservatives and Republicans. But more on that later...)

Now, there’s no guarantee on the accuracy of anything presented in the blogs, of course, since the usual journalistic rules don’t necessarily apply. But alongside pure commentary and partisanship, you’ll find legitimate reporting and personal stories of how issues and candidates are impacting real people. Take it with a grain of salt, and, as with any source, look out for bias or a lack of confirmable sources before you take it to heart. But there’s some valuable perspective out there – coming from a venue that didn’t really exist a decade ago.

Blogs also offer a great way to stay up-to-date on the election campaigns, since most offer the ability to be syndicated as RSS feeds that you can read in your Internet browser or your mobile phone.

As reflected in the blogs, the Internet does seem to have a better connection with liberals in general and Democrats in particular, at least to this point. It’s likely that some of this enhanced connection is simply due to the higher level of immersion of young voters in the Internet and technology. Young voters are generally regarded as more liberal, if less likely to actually vote, while older voters tend to become more conservative.

For me, there’s no better reflection of that demographic split than the distinctive difference between polls conducted from among members of America Online and the Internet at large.

Consistently, as I have read these polls in the last several years, AOL users strongly support Republicans and conservative points of view. But AOL users are also known to drift to the older side of the voting populace, since AOL is designed to be easier for older Internet users to use and retains a significant percentage of long-time users of the service who never found reason to move to other service providers or access the larger Internet on an a la carte basis. (I’m allowed to say this, since I’m one of the few people under 40 I know who still has an AOL e-mail account.) Comments made on political stories on AOL also trend strongly conservative.

Meanwhile, if you check in across most other Internet sites offering political polling and perspective, you tend to find a wider cross-section of the American voting populace, ranging across the spectrum in a way that tends to reflect national polls and voting records. And, when you find sites that specialize in the latest in Internet and technology features, you also tend to find a stronger trend toward liberal viewpoints – or, alternatively, truly independent (dare I say “maverick”?) ones.

Younger liberals and independents dominate Internet dialogue

That’s a trend that many who make their livings – or focus their lives – on technology have noticed in this presidential campaign.

While Democrat Barack Obama has decidedly reaped the benefits of a greater connection with the tech-savvy during his campaign when compared to his Republican rival, it’s not Democrats alone who have managed to find a voice on the Internet. Mold-shattering Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas may have lost his bid to become his party’s nominee for president this year, but early in primary season he made some unexpectedly strong showings in the polls – especially online.

Former Libertarian Party presidential nominee Paul’s supporters so dominated some of the pulse-taking aspects of the online conversation in 2007 that supporters of other Republicans and even Democrats questioned whether Paul’s tech-savvy legion was taking advantage of their understanding of social networking, Web 2.0 news standards, e-mail and online polling to give the Paul an apparent show of support that would never be matched at the polls.

His name was among top searches online in 2007, his YouTube channel a top draw on that site and his presence on the social news site Digg substantially disproportionate to the less than .5 percent of voters who cast their ballots for him for president in 1988. But there’s no doubt that Paul had a substantial portion of the online political buzz in 2007.

Meanwhile, moving on from substantial online fundraising and campaigning done by Democrat Howard Dean in the 2004 primary season and subsequently by Democratic nominee John Kerry, Barack Obama’s campaign has fully explored the Internet and technology as a way to get their message out for 2008.

Obama announced his pick for his running mate – Delaware Sen. Joe Biden – via text message (though that was pre-empted slightly by a leak hours prior to CNN). In the process, he signed up millions of potential supporters who offered up their cell phone numbers to his campaign to get that announcement and – if they chose – others since.

While Obama has championed parents limiting their children’s television and video game time, he also has appealed to the younger voters who tend to play video games with a recent ad campaign that places Obama advertisements inside some video games – urging players to go out and vote on Nov. 4.

Obama’s campaign has also taken full advantage of the Internet with a well-designed Web site that leaves McCain’s looking a little plain in comparison.

The Obama site features offers supporters not only the chance to sign up for e-mails from the campaign or make a donation but also to read the campaign blog, read extensive information on Obama’s policy ideas, find events, view videos, locate their polling places, organize local efforts, sign up for text messages and buy campaign gear, along with visiting the candidate’s Facebook, MySpace and Twitter pages.

McCain’s site does offer most of those features but emphasizes in-person volunteering, e-mail and photographs of the campaign, rather than the tech-friendly options featured so prominently at Obama’s site.

Obama gives over significant Web site space to social networking and other options that are a bigger draw for younger voters, such as Facebook. And that has paid off in online popularity.

According to the Pew Research Centre, Obama’s Web site has consistently attracted about three times the traffic of McCain’s. On Facebook, Obama has 2.8 million “supporters,” compared to 602,000 for McCain.

The Pew survey, conducted in June, noted that a record-breaking 46 percent of Americans had used the Internet, e-mail or text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views and mobilize others. Such use of technology is on the rise, with 35 percent of Americans saying they had watched online political videos – nearly triple the reading the Pew Internet Project got in the 2004 race. Some 10 percent said they had used social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace to gather information or become involved.

These options have proven particularly popular with younger voters: according to Pew, two-thirds of Internet users younger than 30 have a social networking profile, and half of them use social networking sites to get or share information about politics or the campaigns.

Fundraising is also increasingly popular online, with 6 percent of Americans having made political contributions online in the 2008 campaign, compared with 2 percent who did so during the entire 2004 campaign.

Some 39 percent of Americans with Internet access have used the Internet to access “unfiltered” campaign materials, such as video of candidate debates, speeches and announcements, as well as positions and speech transcripts.

The survey also indicated that: 11 percent of Americans have contributed to the political conversation by forwarding or posting someone else’s commentary about the race; 5 percent have posted their own original commentary or analysis; and 6 percent have gone online to donate money to a candidate or campaign.

Pew reported that young voters are helping to define the online political debate, with 12 percent of online 18-29 year olds having posted their own political commentary or writing to an online newsgroup, Web site or blog. And with these young voters getting so involved, Democrats and Obama supporters have taken the lead in their use of online tools: 74 percent of Obama supporters with Internet access have gotten political news and information online, compared with 57 percent of Hillary Clinton’s online supporters.

According to the Pew survey, in a head-to-head matchup with Internet users who support McCain, Obama’s backers are more likely to get political news and information online (65 percent vs. 56 percent).

Despite this growth in use of the Internet – or perhaps because of it – Internet users share some ambivalence about the role of the Internet in the campaign. While 28 percent of Americans with Internet access said the Internet makes them feel more personally connected to the campaign and 22 percent said they would not be as involved in the campaign if not for the Internet, even larger numbers said they feel that the Internet magnifies the most extreme viewpoints and is a source of misinformation for many voters.

Check your facts, have some fun

That brings me to one of my favorite ways to use the Internet as part of making your voting decisions. As quickly as false rumors spread online, it’s just as quick to debunk false information with a few reliable sources. And non-partisan information sources are relatively easy to find online when you hear something you think might not be the truth – or the whole truth.

First, stop in at the Annenberg Political Fact Check – a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania – online at.www.factcheck.org. The site is a self-described “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” It monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases, with a goal of applying the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.

Many of the most recent rumors about candidates on both sides – and the rest of the spectrum – are considered at www.factcheck.org, with some debunked and some confirmed to one degree or another.

You can also head over to CNN’s fact-check center at http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/category/fact-check/, where they check assertions made on the stump and in political ads – and label them as true, misleading or outright false.

CNN is also providing some fun and interesting features during this election season, from its interactive electoral maps – matched with similar maps available on AOL and Fox News’ sites – to its “Political Market” at http://politicalmarket.cnn.com.

The market is a take-off on the stock market in which people can buy and sell virtual “stock” in candidates as winners in states and nationally, and on questions such as whether McCain will drop Palin as his running mate. Everyone starts with $5,000 in virtual money to invest and can aim to make a virtual mint by predicting the outcome of these issues.

Make a decision

Are you still trying to make a final decision as to who will get your vote for president? Most national polls indicate that about 7 percent of likely voters are still undecided.

If you’re in that 7 percent, the first stop I recommend is http://glassbooth.org/. This non-partisan, non-profit organization has partnered with (among others) Rock the Vote and League of Young Voters, all of which aim to get out the vote, no matter who those voters are inclined to support.

GlassBooth aims to make sure you’re voting for the candidate who best represents your views on the issues. No spin, no advertising to sway you, no selective quotes and attack dogs to distract from real policy issues.

First, take the quiz. GlassBooth offers a quiz on your views on the issues, aimed to match you with your best choice in presidential candidate (and, if you’re in Wisconsin, a few other elections, too). You get 20 points to assign to various issues, ranging from taxes and budget, education and the military to the environment, healthcare, gun control and immigration. Throw them all into your top issue, or spread them across the board to best represent your views.

Once you’ve spent your 20 points, you’ll then get 20 points of view on those same issues to rank from “strongly support” to “strongly oppose” or anywhere in between.

GlassBooth will then sort your viewpoints with those of the candidates for president, including Obama, McCain, Cynthia McKinney (Green Party), Ralph Nader (Independent) and Bob Barr (Libertarian), weighting your higher-ranked issues to match you with the best candidate for your stated views. You’ll be given a list of three top candidates, with a percentage rank for how well they match with you.

From what I’ve heard of the results, in many cases people are being matched with the candidates they already favored but are expressing surprise at either how well they matched with them or in where their differences are. But some people are getting a wake-up call.

You can explore those similarities and differences through GlassBooth’s page on each candidate, with the percentage of similarity shown on each issue. There are also detailed pages on each issue, describing each candidate’s position on that issue, including what information was used to determine the matches, such as sourced quotes and voting records. If your candidate match wasn’t quite what you expected, the reason why will show up in these pages, and you can then reevaluate your candidate choice, or reconsider how important particularly issues really are to you.

Glass Booth also offers you the option to “Explore Candidates,” where you can find information on all the presidential candidates, as well as on Biden and Palin. This feature offers a drop-down box to view the candidates’ positions on the issues, including links, quotes and videos. If you’re debating the election issues at home, in a split-party household, this will offer some informed perspective on the other side.

Once you’ve hooked up with your candidate of choice, Facebook users can also add GlassBooth’s Facebook application to show off their pick to their Facebook friends.

Get ready to cast that ballot, and count the winners

Leading up to Tuesday’s voting, there’s plenty for the informed voter to do and double-check to ensure their voice is heard. It may be too late to register to vote if you haven’t already, but there’s plenty of things to do online to ensure your voting experience goes as smoothly as possible if you are registered.

• Start close to home. Visit the state’s election information sites, such as http://pollingplace.delaware.gov, where you can verify that you are registered to vote. Just type in your first and last name and the online system will confirm if you’re registered and tell you where your polling place is, including its hours of operation and level of handicapped accessibility. This is especially great if you’ve registered in the state recently or aren’t sure where you’re supposed to go vote.

Once you confirm you’re registered, take advantage of an extra feature of the site and view a sample ballot for your local district. It will offer you a preview of what you’ll see when you step into the voting booth on Nov. 4, from the presidential candidates in all parties through statewide offices to your state representative candidates for whichever district you live in.

In this case, it’s also an interesting bit of historical perspective, as Delaware voters have the unique chance to see Joe Biden’s name listed twice on the same ballot, right under each other, as both a vice-presidential candidate and a candidate for re-election to his U.S. Senate seat. Neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain are up for re-election to their Senate seats this year, nor is Gov. Sarah Palin up for re-election in Alaska quite yet, so this is an interesting quirk of the Delaware ballot that is not likely to be repeated in the near future.

On the sample ballot are also the e-mail addresses for some of the candidates, just in case you have some last-minute input or questions.

And if you don’t get all your election questions answered by the features on the site, you can also find out how to contact the local election office. So, for instance, if you moved recently without notifying the office, you can then contact the election office to verify where your correct polling place is.

• For even more state election information, visit http://elections.delaware.gov. Here, you’ll find information on all aspects of voting in Delaware, including Delaware’s own election technology – its electronic voting machines.

While much has been made of concerns about the security and accuracy of electronic voting machines in recent years, the manufacturer of the 1,242 Danaher Controls ELECTronic 1242 Model 6T Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine, Model 6 T, says it has a 100 percent accuracy rate. In fact, Delaware was the first state to use direct recording electronic voting machines. The current machines were first used in the 1996 state primary election and, according to the site, replaced Shoup lever machines that had been in use in Delaware since the mid-1950s.

While you’re on this state site, you can also view a how-to guide on how to use the electronic voting machines – particularly helpful if you’re voting for the first time or haven’t voted in a while. There’s even a video of how to use the voting machine. The state also recently introduced special voting machines for the blind and visually impaired, so it’s taking full advantage of new technology to ensure that all of our votes can be counted.

Also linked on the main elections page is the state’s Online Campaign Finance System. Delaware tracks campaign finance activities of all public officials who apply for candidacy in the state, and a secured, online database enables both citizens and candidates to find out information relating to various campaign finance actions in each election. So, if you want to know who contributed money to finance your local representative candidate’s campaign, this comes right from the horses’ mouths.

•When the evening of Nov. 4 arrives, you won’t have to head down to the Coastal Point office to find out the election results. We’ll be posting local election results on our Web site at CoastalPoint.com, but they’ll also be posted on the state’s results Web page at http://elections.delaware.gov/results/html/unofresl.shtml.

Keep in mind that these, like all early results, will be unofficial results. All those who cast provisional ballots at the polls will still need to have their votes considered and many of them will be added to the final totals before they’re certified. But these results generally come in as quickly as they’re released to the media by election officials.

Visiting these sites will put a solid wrap-up on your 2008 election season, whether you spent most of it online or pressing the flesh the old-fashioned way. Now you just have to get ready for 2012…