The Web Reaches Into Palm Beach County

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Nov. 11 2000 1:30 AM

The Web Reaches Into Palm Beach County

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

While all eyes turned to Florida's recount of presidential ballots Thursday, political activity on the Net soared as e-mail demanding a re-vote crossed the nation and Web sites organized protests and offered affidavits to use as ammunition for a lawsuit.

In what might be a first for the Net,  Democrats.com, an independent news and community site launched in January, offered affidavits online to Palm Beach County, Fla., residents to print and fax to a local attorney's office that is considering a lawsuit. The "Florida Margin of Victory Campaign" had collected 90 affidavits by midafternoon Thursday.

"If we decide to take legal action, we have the documents in hand," says Bob Fertik, co-founder of New York-based Democrats.com. "I think this is a critical test for the Internet as a mobilizing tool."

The affidavit is designed for voters in Palm Beach County who mistakenly cast their votes for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. In addition, confusion about the ballot there might have contributed to 19,000 voters marking their ballots for two candidates. Election officials disqualified those ballots, but voters in Florida already have filed at least two lawsuits. Meanwhile, according to unconfirmed number reported by the Associated Press, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's edge over Vice President Al Gore in Florida narrowed to a few hundred votes late Thursday. The Gore campaign could not be reached to comment on the Internet initiatives.

Those who sign the affidavit at Democrats.com declare that they believe the election returns in their specific precinct of Palm Beach County to be "erroneous" and request that they be "investigated, examined, checked and corrected." Attorneys, whose firm name Fertik would not disclose, are deciding whether to file a suit, he said.

"I thought it was neat," Boca Raton resident Harriet Norman said of the online affidavit. Norman's husband, who accidentally marked the wrong ballot but was able to throw it out and obtain a second one, heard about the affidavit at work and printed it out for his wife. "I voted, but I'm not sure if I voted for Gore or Buchanan," she says. "I would love to vote again."

In addition to its affidavit drive, Democrats.com has launched a new site, TrustThePeople.com, whose mission is to "help Democrats organize to make sure Al Gore becomes president." The site posted a petition, which had about 20 signatures by late afternoon, calling for a re-vote in Palm Beach County, and provided a link to a GeoCities page listing 56 cities where demonstrations are planned Saturday to protest the vote. "If election fraud in one state is allowed to invalidate the nation's popular vote, then democracy is in real trouble," the protest page says.

Meanwhile, e-mail messages began flying across the country calling for a re-vote. Sean Wilentz, an American Studies Professor at Princeton University, fired off an e-mail calling for signatures to accompany a one-page ad scheduled to appear in Friday's New York Times. "The electoral outcome of last Tuesday is threatening to produce a constitutional crisis," a draft of the ad reads. It goes on to suggest that a precedent set in the disputed election of 1876 could require a bipartisan National Electoral Commission of Congress and the Supreme Court to settle the matter. But it concludes by saying that nothing less than new elections in Palm Beach County can "preserve the faith of the people upon which our entire political system rests."

Wilentz called on recipients of the statement to sign by responding by e-mail and spread the word. "Now is the time to cash in a chip with the most famous people you know—as well as to build grassroots support," he wrote. "This is, as you will know, an utmost urgency."

Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University, was among the people who received the note and then e-mailed it to 10 to 20 other people. After leaving his computer for six hours, Gitlin says he had received 68 responses, though not all of them were necessarily people agreeing to sign the statement.

"This is an extraordinary moment in American political history," says Gitlin, who signed in part to counter arguments by some in the media that Gore should concede. "My strong feeling was that it was very important to demonstrate there is a very strong current of opinion which is absolutely opposed to doing anything that would short-circuit the legal action, and at the very least, we want to make clear that … sheer, simple, elementary fairness would demand a re-vote in Palm Beach."

Another e-mail directed recipients to a page of  WorkingForChange.com, a site operated by Working Assets, a company that provides long-distance, credit card, Internet, and broadcasting services. From that page, viewers could fill out a form to send an e-mail automatically to Clay Roberts, Florida's division of election director, to request a re-vote.

Yet another e-mail urged Democratic voters not to throw in the towel in disgust and instead send another e-mail demanding a re-vote to Florida's secretary of state. Alternatively, the e-mail suggested calling the Federal Election Commission or Florida's Election Commission. And finally, to spread the word: "Send this e-mail to everyone in your e-mail address book."

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