E-mail may be key to electronic democracy

Lowly e-mail may be the key to creating an "interactive public commons" necessary to make electronic democracy work, according to online election evangelist Steven Clift.

Clift, who is chairman of Minnesota E-Democracy (www.democracy.org), a nonprofit group that created the first election-oriented World Wide Web site in 1994, said e-mail forums, rather than Web-based discussions, were simpler and more effective. "You subscribe once and you're in -- unlike the Web, where you continually have to go to a site to stay informed or be heard."

At a Washington, D.C., meeting of the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Internet Education Foundation on Monday, Clift shared his views on electronic democracy, e-mail forums and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's use of the Internet. He also described the Minneapolis Issues Forum, a project launched in June 1998 that boasts more than 225 direct subscribers who discuss public issues.

Clift said there are only two rules about participating in the forum: Participants can contribute a maximum of twice each day, and they must sign postings with their real name. All content problems or questions of appropriate behavior fall under general guidelines, and users can be issued warnings if complaints are received or if they are not commenting on related topics, Clift said.

The Minneapolis site has sparked stories in the media that range from local issues to saving the region's area code to an explosion in the squirrel population. "Within two days of launching the site, city council members were reading posts at live meetings," Clift said. The site also prompted "one of the first protests in years," when a number of citizens got together after posting about an issue through the forum.

Clift also discussed Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's use of the Internet in his campaign, where the Reform Party candidate effectively used the Internet as his field operation. Ventura maintains two separate sites, the official governor's site and a more personal one where constituents can subscribe. The sites are part of the JesseNet project.

"Jesse Ventura did not win because of the Internet, but he could not have won without it," Clift said.

Ventura used the Web to organize rallies during a van trip through the state by contacting supporters in cities where he did not have a formal base. Through directions given online about forming a rally, 75 to 100 people were organized within three hours and waiting in the next town, Clift said.

Another project Clift addressed was the recently formed Iowa Caucuses online, a discussion forum for caucus attendees to discuss and share candidate information and issues before the presidential caucuses. That project will be followed in September by an Iowa E-Democracy forum modeled after the original in Minnesota.

Clift has seen e-mail forum participants alter their personal views on a subject after a few months of discussion and debate. "Online interaction is very contrarian," he said. "People generally reply to what they disagree with," he said.

"Sometimes it takes two or three months of participation for someone to appreciate its value and question the positions they hold. The media shows two side to a debate, but online there are three and four...it's so different."

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