Spamming for votes in theater of the absurd

COMMENTARYWASHINGTON -- Political campaigns have traditionally provided a stage for the theater of the absurd. Candidates are routinely made to perform the equivalent of "stupid human tricks" in the vain attempt to "connect" with voters.


WASHINGTON -- Political campaigns have traditionally provided a stage for the theater of the absurd. Candidates are routinely made to perform the equivalent of "stupid human tricks" in the vain attempt to "connect" with voters. Now the absurd becomes insane as politicians begin "spamming" potential voters with unwanted political junk e-mail.

Wired Californians received a blast of unwanted political e-mail recently in the form of what is called an "electronic slate," which is a plea for support from a group of like-minded candidates. The idea behind the "e-slate" comes from a group called Informed Voter Network, which bills itself as a "full-service, campaign-oriented, non-partisan voter contact service," run by Robert Barnes & Associates in California.

Do you think that low-budgeted political candidates should be able to spam for votes? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.

The Informed Voter Web site boasts: "We can provide your campaign with a full Cyber strategy that will reach millions of voters across the state of California and hundreds of thousands within your own county."

What the IVN doesn't tell potential clients is that this "e-slate" strategy also has a good chance to alienate millions of potential voters and backfire at the ballot box.

Cyber-politics on the ropes
"While it is doubtful that any candidates will win a campaign because of the Internet this year," says Ken Deutsch, vice president of Internet Strategic Communications for Issue Dynamics, Inc., "it is clear that some will lose because of it."

Deutsch knows his stuff. He was the first full-time paid Internet political consultant; unpaid, he developed the first major political party committee and candidate Internet sites in 1994 for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

He's not pleased with where his efforts have led. "Campaigns are about creating a message and image that stays with voters on Election Day," Deutsch says, "and spam will leave a bad taste in voters mouths."

Infamous online junk mail kings can afford to alienate millions; a 1 percent return rate for their efforts can produce enough cash flow that allows them to "float around in the Bahamas on a yacht," says Jonah Seiger, co-founder of Mindshare Internet Campaigns.

However, if a politician or organization trying to gain support for an issue tries that and ends up alienating 99 percent of the potential voters, "you haven't done anything to serve your ultimate objectives," Seiger says.

Spam or free speech?
The Informed Voter Network didn't respond to a request for comment, but founder Robert Barnes told the San Francisco Chronicle last month that the political mailings weren't spam because he wasn't selling anything.

"We're not trying to get you to buy anything," Barnes told the Chronicle. "This is political free speech," he said.

Free speech, yes, but Barnes had to gin up some real pretzel logic to make the statement that he's not selling anything. But selling is what a political campaign is all about.

The free-speech issue is a non-starter, says Seiger. "As a politician, I'm trying to get people to like me and if I do something I know they don't like, regardless of whether it's legal or whether it's protected by the First Amendment, if I push them away, my objectives are lost," says Seiger. "I am in fact selling something: my ideas. I'm selling my brand, my candidate's brand," he says.

Voters migrating online
Politicians who don't wake up and begin to use the online medium wisely are doomed. Recent studies show that a large majority of registered voters also are "wired" and are seeking political information from the Web.

A survey by Field Poll of California voters found that 42 percent of some 14.3 million registered voters use e-mail on a regular basis. And as other studies have shown, the demographics of the Net are nearly a mirror image of Americans not online, according to David Birdsell, who co-authored the study for Lou Harris. That holds tremendous potential to affect the political process. "It's very likely by the '98 elections, certainly by the 2000 elections, a majority of voters will be online," Birdsell says.

The correct way to use the Net in the political process is to cultivate a relationship with the voter over the long term. That entails two key factors for any politician or organization trying to grow a mailing list: notice and choice.

Any site soliciting a person's participation should provide notice on how that information will be used. Once that has been established in no uncertain terms, the person must be given the choice to receive relevant information via e-mail.

At the Informed Voter site, you can "sign" the guest book and leave a comment; However, you must supply your name and e-mail address first. There is no "notice" as to what will happen to that information -- but you can make an educated guess how it will be used.

"It's really important for someone trying to make a good name with the public to be very up front with how they are going to use information they collect," says Seiger.

Deutsch and Seiger each worry about the impact such political spamming will have on voters as electronic democracy tries to stretch its legs in the coming election cycle. "I'm worried that these (spamming) tactics could undermine the potential of the medium for politics by making people feel like they are assaulted by political information," Seiger says.

Hey, it happened to television. Negative TV ads and boring debates have only succeeded in making a cynical population more so. If politicians succeed in doing the same with cyberspace, they will have blown one of their last, best shots at regaining some amount of respectability.


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