Wiring for Turnout

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Oct. 18 2000 11:30 PM

Wiring for Turnout

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

The undecided voter may be the darling of this year's presidential campaign, but now that the debates are over, the campaigns are focusing intensely on decided voters. With George W. Bush and Al Gore virtually tied in the polls, the election could depend on which party does a better job of convincing its supporters to show up on Election Day. Traditionally, getting out the vote has meant direct mail, phone banks, knocking on doors, public service announcements, and rides to the polls. But this year, the parties are adding something else to the mix, namely e-mail.

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During the summer, the Democratic and Republican National Committees launched almost identical initiatives designed to take advantage of the viral potential of e-mail communication. The Democrats call their effort the e-Precinct Leader program. E-Leaders agree to receive weekly messages from the DNC and to forward them to at least 10 undecided voters they know. The Republicans ask e-Champions to pass e-mails along to as many friends as possible. The RNC says it could recruit as many as 500,000 e-Champions, and that if each one contacts 28 people (the average size of an address book, according to the Wall Street Journal), the e-mail crusade will reach 14 million people.

The theory behind this person-to-person networking is that most people would delete e-mail that came directly from the party committee. But perhaps they will actually read something that a friend or acquaintance sends to them. Both parties also regard e-mail as a better way to locate people willing to do grass-roots work of the traditional, offline kind in their communities.

It sounds eerily efficient, but at the moment, the parties are still working out bugs. Last week, people who never signed up with the RNC started receiving lots of e-Champion mail. Some reported getting the same message 400 times. An RNC spokesman now says that someone hacked into its system and sent out "unauthorized e-mails … from lists out of our control." But the DNC suggests that the Republicans are guilty of at least some spamming themselves. And the effort is hardly dignified in any case. The RNC has offered e-Champions the chance to win a PalmPilot in return for coughing up "two e-mail addresses of GOP friends." This contest sounds like a cheesy, updated version of the Election Day staple known as "walking around money." 

Despite the widespread public distaste for spam messaging, independent organizations are also utilizing e-mail as a way of turning out their voters. They're doing it because electronic messages are cheaper, faster, and more likely to be passed on than old-fashioned bulk-rate direct mail. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League plans to send out three e-mails to about 200,000 voters during the two weeks before Election Day. One message will include a voting guide, a longtime Republican staple. The other two will feature recorded video messages from celebrities. Magic Johnson recorded the first such celebrity e-mail advertisement this spring as part of the successful campaign against Proposition 28 in California, an initiative that would have repealed the state tobacco tax. The video clip took a few minutes for modem users to download and required QuickTime Movie Player.

But e-mail does suffer from many of the same weaknesses as a campaign tool that direct mail does. E-mails are easy to ignore and delete. They can seem annoyingly impersonal. And they cannot help with Election Day logistics the way live workers on the ground can. That is why the big organizations that specialize in getting out the vote—the AFL-CIO and the Christian Coalition, for example—have not radically changed their get-out-the-vote tactics, even though they are starting to use e-mail as a supplement to them. The main union effort this year, a series of bus tours through blue-collar states, is decidedly old economy. And the Christian Coalition will continue to work mainly through local churches.

Will e-mail encouragement affect turnout overall? Less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot four years ago, and experts are predicting worse this year. If high-tech get-out-the-vote drives have any effect, you'd expect to see a change among the youth cohort, which votes at the lowest rate of all (only 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 1996). But the signs aren't very hopeful. According to an American Express Young Voter Poll released last week, 80 percent of respondents could not name the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Apparently not everyone is getting spammed by the RNC.  

Jeremy Derfner is a former Slate editorial assistant.

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