Wooing votes on the Web

November 3, 2003

Toronto Star, [11/03/2003]

 

Its gee-whiz aspect is gone. Now the Net’s a worker. It gives access, gets messages out and funds campaigns

APARITA BHANDARI

SPECIAL TO THE STAR

 

It wasn’t that davidmiller.ca was unavailable. The mayoralty candidate’s campaign pundits figured millerformayor.ca had a better ring. And they could kill two birds with one url.

“The campaign flyer has millerformayor.ca on one side and his policies on the other,” says Bruce Scott, director of communication for the Miller campaign.

“We’ve also put millerformayor.ca on T-shirts, brochures. We’re actively sending people to the Web site during these elections, and the strategy has worked really well. Now that the attention is more focussed on the (mayoralty campaign) after Iraq, SARS and the provincial elections, we’re seeing more visits to the site.

“It was an active decision (to have a Web site) from the launch of our campaign in January.”
In politics, Web sites and related internet technologies have been making their mark, as can be seen from the Howard Dean phenomenon in the United States.

The easily accessible, interactive Internet helps account for the staying power of the former Vermont governor running for president, according to The New Republic.

While other presidential campaign managers are using traditional schmoozing methods, Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi has been busy dreaming up a webby takeover.

He spends his time checking numbers of registered Dean supporters on meetup.com, posting to liberal blogs, sending text messages to supporters who have signed up for the Dean wireless network, and otherwise devising ways to use the Internet to build what Trippi envisions as “the largest grassroots organization in the history of (the Democrat) party.”

And though the dot-com meltdown and the failure of many Web retailers took some of the initial bloom of the Internet as a tool to move goods, Canadian political candidates have also noticed the power of the Web.

Take the lively 2003 Toronto mayoralty election.

Of the 44 mayoralty candidates listed on the city hall Web site, upwards of 20 have included Web addresses in their contact information.

The 15 candidates excluding the ‘Big Five’ – candidates Barbara Hall, Tom Jakobek, David Miller, John Nunziata and John Tory – have also used their Web sites as campaign manifestos.

Most of these Web sites are simple, although three candidates decided to go for a fancy flash intro.
The candidates include Web pages listing general electoral information such as the candidate’s biography and platform, and offer nifty slogans, personal views and some electoral peeves.
Some also include ways for potential volunteers to sign up to help, and let interested donors to donate money to the candidate’s campaign.

These Web sites are also a handy way of learning about some of the more interesting campaigns.
Mayoralty candidate Paul Lewin, for example, wants Toronto to become a province as indicated by his url – provinceoftoronto.ca.

One of the many plans listed in candidate Luis Silva’s Web site – themanwiththeplan.ca – is to “(end) the infamous ‘Curse of the Big M’ by inducing the Toronto Maple Leafs to officially retire Frank Mahovlich’s number 27 during the 2003-2004 hockey season so that no player can wear that number again.”

And Barry Pletch – barrypletch.ca – says you should vote for him “if you want BEER (Better Ethics and Economic Responsibility).”

The Big Five have made their Web sites an integral part of their campaigns, complementing traditional canvassing methods such as handing out printed materials at campaign rallies, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing.

Despite their individual looks, the Big Five Web sites have more similarities than differences. They have a clean look, with an emphasis on easy navigation.

Home pages carry brief summaries of the latest news of the election process and quick links to the candidates’ bios, their stances, past and future events, election FAQs as well as opportunities to help out with the campaign.

On cue, with lawn signs popping up across the city, most of the Web sites have pop-ups that make requesting a lawn sign as simple as a mouse click. All Web sites offer secure online donating methods.
They also have some form of multimedia available – some basic such as Miller’s audio-only radio ads to more elaborate strategies such as the Tom TV series on the Jakobek Web site.

Video testimonials on Hall’s Web site change each time you refresh the page, while the Nunziata Web site’s gallery section shows thumbnails of video speeches.

Web sites have become indispensable to municipal politics, says candidate John Tory (johntory.ca). As president and CEO of Rogers Cable, a major Internet service provider, for the past four years, Tory is especially aware of the internet’s appeal.

“(Web sites) are the way a whole generation of people communicate,” he says. “It’s the people who are computer and internet savvy, who now prefer to get information not from a fax, not from phone, not from TV, but through internet.

“It’s a much more effective way to carry out the business of politics – how people volunteer, how they get a lawn sign, how they donate.”

In fact, if elected, Tory hopes to carry out much of the city’s business by upgrading the city’s Web site and making full use of the internet. “I think the city government is way behind making use of technology and making it available to the citizens and letting them do routine things through the internet. You should be able to get a permit by going online at 3 a.m. if you want, filling a form and then getting (the permit) in your mail.”

As the election date is coming closer, the number of people visiting his Web site, maintained by a group of web guru volunteers, is increasing.
The traffic on the Web site is also changing the nature of political campaigning, says Tory. “I find when I go to events, people have been to my site, have read my policies and ask me informed questions,” he says.

Election Web sites have become the central hub of communication for an electoral campaign says Chris Carder, CEO of Thindata.

A Web site developer with a focus on developing online and e-mail databases, Thindata is helping out with Barbara Hall’s campaign by managing her Web site. barbarahall.com.

“These elections are the first time we’re actively integrating the internet into the rest of the campaign,” says Carder.

“It’s a tool to gather feedback, gather information from voters, volunteers and donors into a central database, and then reach back to them via e-mail or phone or mail, and engage them into the campaign.”

It’s also a way for candidate to check for and counter any spread of misinformation.

“The Web site is where you hear from the candidate,” says Carder. It’s not coming to you through a filter. You can go to the Web site and see the policies or listen to the interview that was on last night.
“In the past candidates would simply put up a Web site that would sit just there. Now we’re really looking at how to use it for outreach, to translate web activity into real connections with people. It could be sending out newsletters or sending surveys, or challenges to build financial support.”

For his part, Nick Trainos, Web strategist for Tom Jakobek’s campaign, thinks the technology involved is least important in Jakobek’s Web site – jakobek.info. A childhood friend of Jakobek, Trainos ensured Jakobek’s vision of connecting with the electorate was reflected in the Web site. “There are 1.7 million electors, and Tom wanted to reach people in every and any way that he can,” says Trainos. “He wants to listen to what people have to say, specifically the young people and the diverse ethnic people. (His Web site) is a like a gathering spot, a virtual town hall.”

So, other than information on Jakobek, the volunteer team focused in on various quick links to election information and the diverse media in Toronto including community and ethnic newspapers.

They’ve also tried to make the Web site as accessible as possible. “We have some multimedia content like Tom TV and Radio Jakobek, but the key thing is accessibility,” says Trainos. “We’ve tried to maintain web compliance, which means visually impaired people can view the site. Formatting is separate from content. It’s a quick download, for people with slow internet connection. It’s a very text-based Web site.

“We’ve kept in mind the average person who wants more information at any time they want. The Web site is up 24-7.”

Despite its efficiency, however, the Web is only a complimentary tool for campaigning right now, says Scott.

“It’s a remarkable way to communicate, to fundraise, to have lawn sign requests,” he says.
“But we still have volunteers handing out campaign literature, we still get a lot of phone calls, we still call people and send mail out. There are still many people without online access.”

So, where will the Internet take politicians in the next few years? Will it take over the business of communication or will it grow obsolete in the face of new technology? Too early to say, but the signs, so to speak, suggest that in electoral politics the Net has emerged as a real force and, given what it can do, may have staying-power.

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