To take a break from the endless hype and gasbaggery of e-business in this time of financial cholera, I'm checking in on the Presidential campaign, where, of course, I expect to find none of that. How can the Web help people research and cast their votes with as much rational preparation as they would put into buying a digital camera? No one site does the whole job. But there are a lot of good sites that will help you think about the campaign in new ways, and maybe even challenge your assumptions.
I'd love to say I've invented the perfect approach to a voter's use of the Internet. Of course, what I did was call BUSINESS WEEK White House correspondent Richard S. Dunham and ask: Hey Rick, what do you use? I agree with Rick on some great places to go. We both think some heavily hyped sites such as AllPolitics.com give you little that newspapers don't already. And we agree that the National Journal's Web site is a treasure trove--but costs more than most voters will pay. But there are free sites Rick pointed out where the candidates explain themselves in more detail than on television. And there are other sites where careful observers provide a more balanced, dispassionate view of the choices we have to make.
Special Interest. The best mix: the Web sites of the Gore and Bush campaigns themselves, with side trips to Opensecrets.org and Voter.com. OpenSecrets is the online home of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks which candidates are taking money from which special interest. Voter.com is a politics portal that has news, compares candidates' positions on different issues, and even helps you register to vote. All of them can play a role in helping people frame choices--especially voters whose top issues get little press, or who want more detail than will fit into the average newspaper article.
The virtue (and the limitation) of the campaign sites themselves is that they are advertisements, portraying the candidates exactly as they would have themselves portrayed. They're heavier on biography and contain much more detail about the history of the candidates' accomplishments and past votes than you'll easily find in one other place. Of course, they're also relentlessly competitive, down to the dueling, real-time "fact police" that mocked the other side's mistakes during the first debate. They also offer interesting, easy ways to get involved: Both AlGore.com and GeorgeWBush.com let you get in touch with the campaigns to volunteer or to give money. Both also let you read speeches and sign up for news on the campaign. My second missive from the Gore camp, though, asked rather gracelessly for money. Maybe Al invented spam.
On balance, I liked Gore's site best for two reasons. One is that it tends to tell you much more about what he has done on specific issues, and a little more about what he would do. Each site lets you click on a particular issue--say, abortion or the economy--to see where the candidate stands. Gore.com's issue areas are deeper, however: They're split between separate pages detailing his past, going through specific votes and bills he has sponsored, and his proposals. Bush's summaries are just that--summaries. If you're researching your vote at length, you're likelier to prefer Gore's approach. (If you value pith and brevity, you'll prefer Bush's site.) It can be a little much sometimes, but you don't have to read it all if you don't salivate to know about the Foster Care Adoption Act of 1979. You can absorb as much detail as you need, and skip the rest.
Also, Gore's site lets users pose questions to the candidate directly. The answers are not overwhelmingly smart or beyond what the candidate says every day--he's for a strong Europe, and against racial profiling--but it's nice that some people who submit questions can get at least a general response to their pet concerns.
Of course, you can't be smart about politics by paying attention just to the candidates themselves. Smart voters can use a number of objective sites, the best of which is Voter.com. Like all good portals, Voter.com capitalizes on what other people do well on the Web, letting users find both information and ways to act on it. Also, Voter.com drills down into the world of gubernatorial, senatorial, and congressional races, too. That's no mean consideration in a year when control of the House of Representatives is up for grabs. The other difference: Race by race, Voter.com offers simple side-by-side comparisons of the candidate's stands on important issues.
Voter.com does this through its Electoral Toolbox section, a set of questionnaires, voting records, and speeches that walk you through candidates' positions on key issues. I especially liked the interactive survey from a nonprofit called Project Vote Smart that asks what you think on 24 different subjects--from moral character to foreign aid--and then compares them to the candidates' positions. Because Vote Smart lets all Presidential candidates submit answers (and pictures), you'll find some wacky stuff. Me, if I ran for President, I'd lose the fishing hats so popular with the crankier independents, let alone the Roman soldier's helmet sported by one Jackson Kirk Grimes, which really is worth a visit to Voter.com all by itself.
My quiz confirmed what I had been suspecting: I'm planning to vote for one candidate, but I agree more often with the other. The problem: One limitation of the toolbox is that you can't easily assign weights to issues, so a city boy can't make tax policy count more than farm aid. Still, the tool is provocative, and for the genuinely undecided it's highly recommended. Vote Smart also covers Senate and House races with mixed results. In my district, neither major-party House candidate answered the quiz. On the other hand, there's pure entertainment value in deciding whether it's humanly possible to spend money as fast as New Jersey Senate hopeful Jon Corzine proposes.
One final character check that has always been hard to perform is to judge the candidates by where and how they raise their campaign money. Opensecrets.org is the site that makes this the easiest. In every major race, you can see who took what from whom, and which industries were the biggest sources of soft money. The Democrats' ties to law firms or the Republicans' dependence on real estate developers may not weigh heavily in your vote. But it's information worth having.
What happens then is up to you. The thing that matters most isn't whom we vote for, it's that we vote at all.