Citizens go online for voter info

Florida site

Web sites are an option for citizens seeking voting information, but in popularity, they still rank below personal communications.

State officials prepared for Election Day by posting voter education and election information online. Some discovered that their Web sites were not voters' first choice for information, and they hope to change that.

Some state officials reported that citizens used the telephone or other personal communication to learn about voter registration, polling places and candidates, even in states where officials made an effort to get citizens to go online.

In some states, officials said they did

not conduct marketing campaigns to

promote voter Web sites. Some also acknowledged that they

were not tracking

information that citizens looked for on their election sites. By tracking information, officials can improve the sites so citizens can find information more easily in the future.

Most state officials have made strides in publicizing their Web portals, said Thom Rubel, vice president of government strategies at Meta Group Inc. But they have not improved voter Web sites.

Instead, officials in various offices of the secretaries of state, who would be responsible for coordinating such publicity efforts, focused on other voting issues, such as the controversy surrounding electronic voting machines and other ballot counting concerns, he added.

"The states with the most complaints about long lines and confusion will probably be the ones to really work on their sites and promote their sites for next time," Rubel said. "This year, they're so focused on this cutover to new technology."

In Florida, the center of the vote count controversy in the 2000 election, a toll-free hot line was the first option citizens chose for information, said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Elections Division. Most Web site users were from the media, research organizations, associations and advocacy groups, she said.

Florida officials found that citizens made toll-free calls to request information that was available on the Web site, including details on touch-screen voting machines and the candidates. Officials directed citizens to the Web site, but many callers were unfamiliar with the Web or did not want to bother, Nash said.

Florida election officials made no major efforts to publicize their election Web site, but they plan to redesign the site by 2006, Nash said.

In Pennsylvania, officials in the secretary of state's office began a voter education drive in July that included advertising and a new Web site, VotesPA.com. Along with candidate information and statistics about past elections, the Web site includes instructions for using voting equipment, voter guides in English and Spanish, voters' rights information and video guides.

"If you have any questions, this is your one-stop shop," said Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the office. "We really do think that through this site, we alleviated a lot of potential problems." However, as in other states, Pennsylvania officials did not track how citizens used the new site.

Ohio was a focal point of this year's election. With expectations of a large voter turnout, state officials planned ahead, conducted a marketing campaign and built a user-friendly voter Web site, Rubel said, adding that the state's leaders understood that information technology could be a powerful partner in distributing voting information to citizens.

In Washington, officials said they did little to publicize the state's voter Web site, although they mentioned the site in voter education and outreach efforts. They tracked usage throughout the months before the election and on Election Day. Improvements to the Web site are planned for the back-end systems that provide information for the site, said Matthew Edwards, Webmaster for the Secretary of State's Office.

"We obviously want to tailor the information to what people want but also make it easier and more user-friendly," Edwards said.

Before the election, he said, most people came to the site looking for voter guides containing information about the candidates and ballot measures. On the day of the election, he said, information on updated results information was popular. n

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