Putting The Pc Into Politics

When Arthur S. Wilkinson obtained a copy of a six-page memo called "The Clinton Record," he knew exactly what to do with it. The coordinator of the Kerrey for President campaign in Bucks County, Pa., Wilkinson switched on his personal computer, wrote a summary of the memo and transmitted it to a special political bulletin board on the Prodigy information network. The memo, which he says was researched and written by Bush campaign operatives, is highly critical of Bill Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas. Within two days, Wilkinson received more than 60 electronic-mail messages from voters who wanted to read the whole thing. He faxed copies to most of them.

Welcome to the world of teledemocracy--using computer networks as a campaign medium and as a way to bring ordinary citizens into the political process. With 3 million U.S. households hooked up to on-line information services--up from 500,000 four years ago--this year's Presidential campaign may be the first to feel the influence of the new forum. It won't transform politics overnight, but advocates say it may be the begining of a new type of participatory democracy that could energize the electorate and regain control from pundits and lobbyists.

Even the Presidential hopefuls themselves are going on-line. Former California Governor Jerry Brown is wired into the CompuServe network (table) where campaign workers now field about 100 requests a day from voters who want to learn about Brown and his positions. Says campaign worker Russ Singer: "For most of them, this is the first time they have actually contacted a campaign and gotten answers."

Similarly, last December, former Irvine (Calif.) mayor Larry Agran, frustrated by the lack of media coverage of his campaign, held what is believed to be the first live computer conference by a Presidential candidate. CompuServe members were notified to log in at a certain time to send in questions. A speedy typist transmitted Agran's answers back to the voters' PC screens.

An electronic Q&A is a first step. But computer network enthusiasts have something bigger in mind: an electronic town meeting spanning the nation. "But how do you conduct a meaningful discussion with thousands or millions of people?" asks Clem Bezold, executive director of the Institute for Alternative Futures, a think tank in Alexandria, Va.

BORING OR SEXY? The two largest on-line services are trying to find out. CompuServe, a unit of H&R Block Inc. with 940,000 members, has set up a Campaign '92 Forum, where members post notes for all to read. Notes are grouped in subjects like "Can Boring be Sexy?," which has comments on the TV persona of former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas. Some say he evokes Elmer Fudd, while others argue he's more telegenic than Richard Nixon.

Prodigy, a joint venture of IBM and Sears, Roebuck & Co. with 1.5 million members, is more active in framing the debate on its bulletin boards. Prodigy editors choose topics in the news and rotate them every week. Recent ones include "State of the Union," "N.H. Primary," and "Taxing the Rich." Under each, members create the subjects. Jennifer J. Mattingly, a Clinton campaign official and chairman of the Democratic Party in Williamson County, Tex., set up one called TexasVote. There, she explains why Clinton will "walk away with" the crucial Texas primary.

But political pros such as Mattingly, and Wilkinson, the Kerrey worker, concede that the average electronic debater is no Winston Churchill. "Any idiot can get on there," says Mattingly. That also makes polling by computer nets--or by interactive cable TV, for that matter--a questionable proposition. Prodigy does such surveys but warns that the results aren't a statistically valid sampling. Of some 26,500 respondents to a recent Prodigy poll, 51% said the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. Yet 54% said they plan to vote for President Bush.

To help subscribers deal with issues, Prodigy has added a data base called "Political Profile." It contains the legislative histories, fund-raising records, viewpoints, and biographies of each Presidential contender and member of Congress. Now, members have no excuse for getting their facts wrong. There's even a state-by-state rundown on how to register to vote, supplied by the League of Women Voters as part of its "Take Back the System" drive. "Voters feel the Presidential campaign no longer belongs to them," says Mary Ellen Barry, the league's national director. "This will increase their sense of participation and interest."

ON-SCREEN ADS. But not for everybody. "How many poor people have Prodigy or CompuServe?" asks Bezold. "The information revolution will increase the inequities of society." Indeed, CompuServe reports $65,800 as the median household income of its members. Prodigy, which sells commercials to upscale advertisers, proclaims a median household income of $73,200. These subscribers are also by and large the type of conservative suburbanites who, pundits say, swing Presidential elections. So Prodigy is soliciting the candidates themselves to place on-screen ads, which start at $10,000.

Other critics charge that the new medium doesn't tolerate "politically incorrect" views. Andy Ditzhazy, a Michigan volunteer for TV commentator Pat Buchanan's campaign, complains that Prodigy has refused to post some of his notes, in particular one that discusses ways to overthrow the federal government. Prodigy says it reserves the right to reject notes that it deems obscene, offensive, or irrelevant to the topic at hand. And despite his experience, Ditzhazy has high hopes for teledemocracy. "When everyone has access to electronic mail and bulletin boards," he says, "political debate will be democratized."

What will that mean? Teledemocrats envision the day when all citizens have easy access to the information that their representatives use to make laws. "Someday," says Barry, "congressmen will be on the network." When that happens, proposed legislation could be posted on a bulletin board, where citizens could register their opinions. That might even get couch potatoes more involved in running the country.

      The following 1992 Presidential candidates are getting their message out to 
      voters via on-line computer services
      LARRY AGRAN (D) The former mayor of Irvine, Calif., a long-shot candidate, 
      hosted a conference on the CompuServe network. Voters typed in questions on 
      their PCs, and an assistant transmitted Agran's answers back
      JERRY BROWN (D) Set up a forum on CompuServe. Voters can send electronic mail 
      messages to campaign offices. Workers there reply to questions and send back 
      electronic versions of position papers by the former California governor
      PAT BUCHANAN (R) A volunteer in Michigan posts anti-Bush messages on Prodigy's 
      political bulletin board. He's asking voters to press President Bush to agree 
      to a live debate with the TV commentator
      BILL CLINTON (D) A Democratic Party official in Texas set up an area of the 
      Prodigy bulletin board called TexasVote. In it, she deflects criticism of the 
      Arkansas governor and lists prominent people who have endorsed him
      BOB KERREY (D) A campaign worker in Pennsylvania scans Prodigy's political 
      bulletin board for messages from undecided voters. He sends them electronic 
      messages urging support of the Nebraska senator
      DATA: BW