Dems upgrade political machine

The Democratic National Committee has begun combing through its month-old Web site to remove errors and improve confusing navigation.

Touted as a "state-of-the-art, interactive Web page," www.democrats.org was designed to be user-oriented, but was marred by incomplete, outdated and erroneous information and murky navigation, experts said. The site, which went online Feb. 1, is full of interactive features that the DNC hopes will encourage people to get more involved in government and in the Democratic party. But it was also sprinkled with errors.

For example, the site's home page can be personalized to display information on topics the user selects. But until late February, there was no clear path to the personalization feature. A button has been added that calls up a form where users can register with the DNC and personalize their home pages.

A feature designed to tell users who their elected representatives are continued to list Republican Jim Gilmore as governor of Virginia even after he was replaced by Democrat Mark Warner in mid- January. That has now been corrected.

The same section of the Web site incorrectly identified a state senator from rural southern Virginia as a senator from urban Northern Virginia. By the end of February, it no longer listed the wrong senator, but still did not list the right one. Instead, it provides a list of all state senators and their district numbers — but no addresses.

The changes are part of ongoing upgrades, said Bill Buck, a spokesman for the DNC. He blamed the early errors on vendors who provided the DNC site with features such as lists of state governors and representatives.

The Web site's concept is more important than its flawed execution, he said.

"What's different about this is the underlying technology," Buck said. "The old site wasn't interactive." A DNC announcement predicts that interactive technology "will revolutionize the way the Democratic Party interacts with voters, communicates with activists and raises money."

The idea is to "engage people on issues they are interested in" by allowing them to personalize the DNC site so it provides information on the subjects they select. Those interested in environmental issues, for example, will log on to a home page that features DNC data on the environment, Buck said.

A key feature on the site enables visitors to "contribute securely online," using a credit card.

"We're trying to increase the donor base of the party," Buck explained. "It's all the more important" with the passage of campaign finance reform legislation that restricts corporate donations, he said.

An online store sells Democratic souvenirs and an online form will "spread the Democratic message" to friends. The site will even send a pre-written e-mail message to President Bush opposing his recent alternative to the Kyoto global warming treaty.

"I think they have done a good job," said Kathy McShea, who was a Web site designer for the Energy Department before starting her own online public relations company, Emerald Strategies Inc. "It's a big leap forward for the Democrats to have all these new features."

Political Web site designer Phil Noble called the Democrats' site "a step forward, but not a quantum leap."

Clicking through the site, Noble noted navigational difficulties and pointed out information that is absent from the site. "I can order my DNC scented candle and latte mug for $12.40, but I can't figure out how to run for city council," he said. "That, to me, is pretty basic. The job of the committee is to help elect Democratic candidates to public office."

Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline and a leader in using the Internet in political campaigns, judged the DNC site as "sort of underwhelming."

Another political Web site designer, Pam Fielding, said the site "is disappointing, and I'm sorry because I'm a Democrat."

She said it is "a serious problem" that after filling out an online form that includes detailed personal information, the site requires users to enter a nine-digit ZIP code or a complete street address in order to learn who their elected representatives are.

Fielding, who runs the electronic lobbying firm e-advocates, also had difficulty navigating from the home page to the area where it is possible to personalize the site. "It's great to have these tools, but only if they work," she said.

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