Election 2000: The Net wins big

Name an election issue, any election issue -- finding last-minute info on the topic is now a breeze on the Web.

Voters scouring the Web for last-minute information before heading to the polls can get tips from a wide variety of sites, including many tailored toward specific groups.

Unlike in 1996, when even the official candidates' sites consisted of little more than a front page, the Web today offers a variety of election information sites, including those with broad appeal as well as tailor-made sites aimed at women, blacks, and gays.

Gone are the days when voters had to get background from a hodgepodge of position papers, newspaper pieces, and sensational TV ads.

These days, voters can turn to the Web and participate in interactive chats and polls, emerging with a list of candidates and positions on ballot measures that matches their views.

Perhaps the most unique impact on pre-election information gathering has been the proliferation of sites tailored to specific groups such as women, blacks, and gays.

Granted, few people vote on women-related or gay topics alone. However, people visiting these sites can -- quickly and easily -- at least find out how local and national candidates stand on such issues.

The phenomenon of focused political sites first made a splash at the political conventions, where Women.com, Womensenews.com, Hispanic site Terra.com, Planetout.com, and politicallyblack.com obtained credentials to cover the events.

Now, those sites and others are offering customized coverage for those who want to drill down into specific issues.

For example, Women.com's election site posts replies from presidential candidates Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore on how their platforms would affect women.

Members of the Women's Congressional Caucus have participated in the site's message boards, and the site posts pop quizzes in which readers can compare their views on hot-button issues including abortion and health care to the candidates' stances.

"We're not covering the horse race," Women.com Editor Lisa Stone said. "But you can come and figure out who you're going to choose as a candidate."

For Hispanics, Terra.com gives a brief historical account of how that community has voted in the past along with a roundup of important issues.

Gay and lesbian site Planetout.com is going a step further by actually ranking the presidential candidates on where they stand on gay issues.

In one of the most comprehensive sites targeted toward a specific group, Planetout.com gives surfers an overview of national and local races, plus some ballot measures that may be of interest to gays and lesbians.

It also features a map of key races, articles on how the outcome will affect gays and lesbians, and more detailed news stories than can be found in the mainstream press on issues such as domestic partnerships, hate crimes, and adoption rights.

"We're putting it out there for people to make their own decision," said Matt Alsdorf, Planetout.com's news and politics editor.

Most important, Alsdorf said, the Web provides easy access to voting information for people who might have had trouble finding it in the past -- such as those who are still closeted or people in rural areas.

"The Internet is so important because it does allow people to go online and find information that's relevant to them and to connect with others as a political group," he said.

Then there are the sites aimed at educating a broad spectrum of voters.

Issues2000.org indexes the candidates' views on a surprisingly wide variety of topics, ranging from taxes to technology.

For example, the site shows that Gore said he favored a "digital cabinet" of high-tech advisers on Sept. 30, while Bush said he wanted to safeguard genetic information a few days later.

It also offers direct links to the news stories and speeches that contain the information. Publicagenda.org's Framing the Debate section also explores policy issues from a wide variety of views.

Or, for those who need even more help in choosing a candidate, SpeakOut.com's VoteMatch service walks readers through a five-page Web questionnaire on topics ranging from abortion to China's human rights record.

It then presents test-takers with a list of candidates who most closely match their needs -- sort of like a dating service for voters. DecisionAgent Inc.'s Decidebetter.com performs a similar test.

Freedomchannel.com provides, among other things, video of candidate statements. And BallotMaker.org lets people in California, Oregon, and Colorado compare their views on candidates and ballot measures with those of advocacy groups, candidates, and other visitors to the site.

Other sites giving voters an overview of the issues and candidates in the presidential and other races include Grassroots.com and Politics1.com.

Web, White & Blue has been running a daily debate since early October, in which the campaigns respond to daily questions on topics including military spending and Napster. Voters can view the archives.

However, just because the sites are out there doesn't mean people are visiting them en masse.

After all, Pseudo.com, which made a big splash with a skybox at the Republican National Convention, went under on Sept. 18. Politics.com followed a month later.

Right now, experts say election sites are mainly drawing political junkies.

"But you have to start somewhere," said Michael Cornfield, who teaches at George Washington University and directs the Democracy Online project. "And remember that lots of people ask their junkie friends how to vote, so that the junkies have influence disproportionate to their numbers."


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