Playing With Votes

Playing With Votes

Playing With Votes

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
June 2 2000 11:30 PM

Playing With Votes

A Web site for fantasy elections makes sport out of politics.

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Across America, voter apathy creeps ever closer to a historic high. New Yorkers are despondent over the dream Senate race that got away. And the presidential sparring match has lost its punch.

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But some twentysomethings from Denver think they might have hit upon the recipe for puncturing voter cynicism. It's called Fantasyelections.com, an online political guessing-game modeled after that scarily popular phenomenon, fantasy sports.

Colton Alton, 25, and pal Matt Yarbrough launched the site in April and have amassed "a couple thousand" paying players. The game costs $14.95 to play, and come November, the grand prize will be a trip for two anywhere in the United States. Participants draft a team of 10 candidates (eight from the U.S. House, two from the Senate) and ride them to political glory. As with fantasy sports, there is an elaborate point-scoring scheme. Just like the real world, a candidate that can amass dollars and votes is more valuable, making Hillary Clinton the Sammy Sosa of her field.

A Fantasyelections player earns one point for every 5,000 votes and another point for every $10,000 in contributions tallied by each of their candidates. Political dogs can be dropped or traded if they're not cutting it. But there are also some curves thrown in. As any casual observer of politics knows, Senate candidates accrue more money than their congressional counterparts. And incumbents outpace challengers. The organizers have set the rule that in a stable of 10 candidates, only two can be running for Senate, only six can be incumbents, three have to be challengers, and one has to a member of a third party.

"We really wanted to reach out to a voting population that feels isolated, whether they be from the Green Party, Reform Party, or whatever," says Colton, explaining the strict rules. He adds that such rules have made Bernie Sanders, the Independent incumbent congressman from Vermont, a top draft choice.

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Colton says the site has sparked interest at a number of campaign headquarters around the country. He says he's received e-mail messages from campaign organizers for Jon Corzine, a Democratic challenger for Senate in New Jersey. But, says a Corzine campaign spokesman, the only correspondence he could recall was to alert the Fantasyelections' Webmaster that Corzine's name was misspelled. The Corzine campaign declined to comment on whether they will be monitoring Fantasyelections for insights into voter behavior. "We're just too focused right now on the primary," a spokesman said.

Colton and his crew might have a way to go before they start a people's revolution. Tami Buhr, research coordinator for the Shorenstein Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is skeptical. She's convinced that it's something only political junkies will love. "But what if you're not interested in politics or don't follow politics on a regular basis? There are a lot more people out there that follow the sports pages every day than follow the political pages," she says.

Buhr is coordinating a study called the Vanishing Voter Campaign. It tracks the electorate's involvement in the 2000 presidential campaign. At the moment, she says, the campaign's voter-involvement index is at its lowest level of the year. As of June 2, it hit 21 out of a possible 100 points—that's down from 50 the week after the Super Tuesday primaries in March.

Undeterred, Colton has plans to make the biggest splash yet for the site around the presidential conventions in July and August. Fantasyelections will plaster billboards in Washington, D.C., and conduct Webcam broadcasts of the favored candidates at the Democratic, Republican, Reform. and Green Party conventions. The company, funded by $40,000 in cash from friends and family, is looking for an angel investor to help with the expenses.

"We have a chance to create a whole new lingo," Colton enthuses. "Could you imagine if George F. Will says on a Sunday morning talk show, 'Well, I'll just have to drop this political candidate from my fantasy team.' "