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Communications of the ACM

A Case Study of a Netizen's Guide to Elections


Every new information and communication technology seems to garner proposals for applications in politics and governance. Rapid worldwide growth in Internet and Web use has stimulated many initiatives aimed at applying information and communication innovations to create what has been called a "digital" or "electronic democracy."

Proponents of electronic democracy, who include increasing numbers of public interest groups, argue that a wide range of technological capabilities could be applied to facilitate closer links among citizens, as well as between citizens and politicians [6, 12]. They also point to an array of new opportunities, such as the electronic delivery of many public services to people's homes or conveniently located multimedia kiosks; more access to a wider variety of public information; the creation of electronic forums for large-scale debates; and direct democratic participation through online voting and interactive polling.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that such innovations may have many disadvantages. These include lowering the level of political discourse; exacerbating inequalities between information haves and have-nots; merely mimicking more traditional forms of media; undermining traditional intermediaries, such as political parties and interest groups, and helping politicians to gauge and, thereby, manage public opinion and voting behavior more efficiently [2].

Competing conceptions of the voter underlie a debate which has raged for decades around questions concerning the provision and consumption of information relating to specific political issues [1, 11]. Are voters influenced by candidates' positions on the issues? Is it rational for voters to select candidates on the basis of their stated positions on issues? What does it mean to behave rationally or responsibly as a voter? How will the provision of issue-oriented information via new electronic media alter the way voters evaluate issues and candidates at elections?

V. O. Key [11] argued decades ago that "many individual voters act in odd ways indeed; yet in the large the electorate behaves about as rationally and responsibly as we should expect, given the clarity of the alternatives presented to it and the character of the information available to it." If a sizeable number of voters do inform themselves and choose candidates on the basis of issues, then easy access to high-quality information over the Internet could make a positive contribution to creating a more responsible electorate. Greater interest in politics could then be nurtured if, as its proponents claim, electronic democracy lowers the barriers of access to information about candidates and issues. This could create a move away from sound bites towards more considered issue-oriented voting than would be otherwise possible [7].

The following case study provides insight into how such hopes might be realized in practice.

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A Close Look at the Leading-Edge: The Democracy Network (DNet)

Our case study concerns the 1998 California gubernatorial primary elections and the use of one of the most prominent of a growing number of electronic democracy projects aimed at reforming campaigns and elections. This provided a meaningful context for a clearly focused investigation that could analyze important network features, rather than attempting to deal with the broad-based and diffuse role of the Internet as a whole. After evaluating the various campaign Web sites available, we decided the one that tried to support a more informed, issue-oriented debate most innovatively was the Democracy Network (DNet).

DNet's Web site (www.dnet.org) was launched in the summer of 1996 by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). DNet, which became a joint project with the League of Women Voters, has sought to foster more issue-oriented campaigns and voting by providing improved information about the position of all candidates on a wider array of issues than could be covered by traditional media [3, 4]. CGS is a non-profit think-tank that gained national recognition for its reform efforts in such areas as campaign finances, public affairs coverage, and education. For example, the center built the California Channel, the nation's first statewide public affairs network, modeled after the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN).

Within the overall focus of the study, we examined the role of DNet from several vantage points. For instance, we compared how issues were treated on DNet; in television advertising; and on candidates' own Web sites. We concentrated on the four major contenders for office (Republican Dan Lungren and Democrats Al Checchi, Gray Davis, and Jane Harman), who could afford television ads and their own Web sites, while also exploring the impact on the other 13 gubernatorial candidates. We compared media in terms of the breadth and depth of issue-oriented discussion, identifying which issues were discussed and how they were treated by candidates.

We also interviewed staff and managers from three of the four major gubernatorial campaigns, in addition to several Web masters who worked within the campaigns. The primary purpose of these interviews was to develop more qualitative insights into the ways in which campaign staff viewed the online voter, the Internet in general, and DNet in particular.

From another vantage point, we examined how voters used DNet by automatically analyzing log files and other utilization data in the week immediately prior to the June 1998 primaries, when voter interest was at its peak. Our main sources were DNet files containing information about the California primary election and the race for governor.

CGS staff employed several strategies designed to encourage candidates to provide more issue-oriented information to voters [7]. The "issue grid" and "digital debate" were the most innovative of DNet's approaches to using the Web.

DNet's issue grid allowed voters to read each candidate's position on a wide-range of issues. Each row of the spreadsheet-like grid represented an individual candidate for the respective office, in this case, governor. Each column represented a particular issue. The cells formed by the intersection of rows and columns identified a candidate's position on the particular issue. A cell was ticked with a checkmark if the candidate provided a position statement on the issue identified by the respective column. Clicking on the ticked boxes led a user to the candidate's statement. If candidates did not provide a statement for the particular issue, a "no comment" would be displayed in the cell.

The issues were arranged alphabetically in an attempt to treat all issues equally and to avoid the introduction of biases through editorial decisions taken by CGS staff. Candidates could ask for issues to be included in the grid. Other candidates could then submit their opinions on these topics. A candidate's name would be moved to the top of the candidate list whenever that contender provided new information. Inattention to the issue grid could result in a candidate being moved down the grid, creating an incentive to address new issues and update issue positions. The grid eventually spread to cover seven full screens of cells.

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Priming the Issue Pump in the Digital Debate

DNet claimed to give voters the "first and only online debate featuring all candidates in the Gubernatorial Race" [3]. To accomplish this, DNet staff primed the process by extracting onto DNet's issue grid the positions on key issues raised in the only televised debate between the four major gubernatorial candidates.

The incorporation of transcripts from the televised debate onto the DNet issue grid encouraged candidates outside the main four to comment on these issues, which seemed to broaden access to candidates dubbed "marginal" by the traditional media. Candidates with much less staff, technological expertise, and money than well-funded campaigns may still not have had truly equal access. However, barriers to entry for minor-party candidates were significantly lower for DNet than for television ads or debates. For instance, all but one of the 17 gubernatorial contenders submitted position statements to DNet on a total of 31 issues. In order to ensure that a lack of Internet access would not destroy a candidate's access to voters over DNet, CGS staff even permitted candidates to call, hand-write, or fax position statements, biographical information, or other material.

Candidates participated at different levels. Some provided statements on almost all 31 issues, while others submitted only a few position statements and frequently used the "no comment" option. The four major candidates had position statements for between 12 and 15 of the issues listed on the site, but they appeared to give priority to their own TV ads and Web sites, which were used to feed material to DNet.

Checchi's opinions on education, for example, could be found on the three media outlets we studied. In his television ads, he merely touched on the issue and rarely talked about proposed action. In one ad, a voice-over stated "Al Checchi will cut state bureaucracy 10% and invest the savings in education." On his Web site, Checchi devoted an entire section to issue positions, for example, discussing "Ten Big Changes for California Education" and extensively dealing with action items in elementary and secondary education. Among his position statements on DNet were comments on accountability of educators, attracting teachers, and bilingual education, which were taken from transcripts of a Los Angeles Times Forum debate without any revisions or additions. The views Checchi submitted to DNet on education were identical to those on his own Web site.


DNet is a fairly new initiative on a medium that, despite incredible growth rates in recent years, still has a much lower reach than traditional mass media.


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The Pride Vested in the Candidate's Own Web Site

CGS staff began to use candidates' own Web pages as an important additional source from which to draw material for the issue grid and candidate biographies, complementing television, newspapers, and other traditional media. A large part of the issue-oriented information from the four major candidates was derived indirectly from either their own Web pages or the Los Angeles Times debate.

In other ways, the candidates' Web sites deflected attention from DNet. Candidates seemed to place more care and attention to their own sites than to others' sites, like DNet, for which they did not feel the same sense of ownership and control. For example, candidates often did not submit to DNet many issue statements available on their own site. Moreovere, candidates often gave position statements on their own sites that dealt with issues that were not among the 31 on the issue grid, yet failed to asked for these to be included on DNet, although they were apparently perceived to be important in their campaigns.


Our study demonstrated the Internet can make a difference in the coverage of candidates and issues in political campaigns and elections.


A lack of awareness could be one explanation for this neglect of DNet. Interviews with campaign staff indicated that most campaign managers knew little or nothing about DNet, despite good media coverage and great effort by DNet staff to publicize its existence. For example, a staffer on the Checchi campaign said: "I think if there were an independent site or issue-oriented site ... it would be a great idea." This essentially described DNet, although he clearly did not know it existed.

Another factor contributing to a campaign's focus on their own Web site was its use within the campaign to help organize, search for volunteers, solicit contributions, and register voters. One campaign manager indicated the importance of the campaign's Web site for activities other than informing voters by stating: "We probably wouldn't be able to do [this] on a general access site." In fact, DNet did include a facility for recruiting volunteers and soliciting campaign contributions.

In addition to using it to reach out to voters for contributions and volunteers, campaign staffers saw the Internet's main value as being an effective means for communicating within the campaign organization. All campaigns claimed to make wide use of the Internet as a means of contacting its consultants and field offices. Checchi even used the Internet to transport and edit television commercials with great speed. All of the campaigns also indicated the Internet assisted them in various research activities, such as exploring the statements of competing candidates.

Moreover, time is considered a precious resource in campaigns. All the staffers we interviewed indicated they had to make difficult decisions constantly about picking and choosing among competing demands on their time. The duplication from the candidates' own sites to DNet and the general lack of interest in introducing new issues may simply be the most expedient resolution of this time-allocation problem. As one campaign staffer remarked: "Why put messages on DNet when people could just look at our site?"

Nevertheless, candidates did submit some statements not included on their own sites or in the Los Angeles Times debate, as Checchi did on housing and racism and Davis on crime and health care. Thus, the issue grid did foster the provision of more issue-oriented information from within the primary election campaign.

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TV Commercials and the Targeting of Swing Voters

It was apparent from even a cursory view of the campaign that, compared to television ads, DNet offered more in-depth information on more candidates and more issues. The nature of digital networks—only a few seconds to communicate a message—makes TV ads less suitable for the extensive treatment of issues. This was one of the dominant rationales behind the creation of DNet, and it remains a valid argument.

Less obvious was the degree to which campaign staffers viewed TV ads and the Internet as two quite different mechanisms for targeting voters. Managers from the Checchi and Harman campaigns, for example, indicated a medium's usefulness hinged on the perceived need to target swing voters. One campaign manager indicated the Internet was less useful to their campaign because: "If Jane Doe is a target for Jane Harman, and she is a suburban mother of two, then education, choice, childcare, and family leave issues are important to her. How do we get that message to her? Right now the Internet is not a way. She doesn't log on, I don't think, to figure out which candidate is best for her on those issues. Right now the best way is with television."

For such reasons, the major candidates made limited use of the potential to discuss a broader range of issues on DNet. They rarely introduced statements that voters could not have heard or read before, so mainly used DNet to reinforce messages conveyed over other media. Many campaigns also failed to conceive of voters as being rationally driven by the issues. Instead, they regarded general images of parties and candidates as the main way of influencing voters, which they still felt to be better conveyed by TV. As one manager noted: "It [the race] is going to come down to potentially who the voters like better, character and personality—who is the funnier guy, a nicer guy, who is the more down to earth kind of guy that you can trust, and all that kind of stuff. I think the pictures help. Commercials, and quick sound bite flashes, show what kind of people ... they are."

Nevertheless, DNet gave minor candidates a chance to enter the debate and to gain attention for their viewpoints. In that sense, DNet created a more level playing field for all candidates.

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Usage of the DNet Site

Usage of DNet steadily increased in the days before the primary elections. The number of visits (defined as a series of hits, not separated by more than 20 minutes) increased from 517 on May 27 to 1,170 on June 1 and 1,838 on June 2, election day. This suggests that DNet was especially useful for voters who did not have time to follow election coverage in the media closely in the weeks prior to June 2nd. The fact that hits on DNet pages containing issue-oriented information increased during this week may reflect voters' growing interested in issues as the election draws near. Another cause for the trend could be the increasing media attention on the elections, which in itself could have resulted in an increase in Internet-traffic. This trend was probably reinforced by the fact that several sites covering the primaries and some candidate Web sites featured a link to DNet.

In total, 3,431 unique visitors were identified in the week before election day. These numbers are comparable with, and certainly not lower than, the usage of other sites with information about elections or political campaigns [7]. This limited number of visitors should not imply that DNet's role in the political arena is at the margins. DNet is a fairly new initiative on a medium that, despite incredible growth rates in recent years, still has a much lower reach than traditional mass media. However, the perception that Internet sites have a limited reach was a significant factor noted by campaign staff as a reason for not participating in DNet. Ironically, they also often said they believed their own campaign Web sites reached many voters. The uncertainty surrounding the identity of Web users had an impact on the way campaigns thought about the use of the Internet for targeting specific swing voters.

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The Issue Grid's Hit Parade

DNet log files enabled us to gauge the frequency with which users looked at specific pages of issue-oriented information. This analysis showed the number of grid pages viewed was relatively high compared to other parts of the site, although the motivation to fully explore the information offered seemed to be generally low.

For example, the first page was viewed 3,465 times compared to 329 times for page 6 (9% of the total for the first page) and 193 times for page 7 (6% of page 1's total). Thus, there were relatively few visitors who browsed through the complete grid, despite the fact that issues were listed alphabetically rather than in order of importance. Furthermore, issue statements provided by the four major candidates were viewed more often than other candidates' statements. It seems that name recognition, the popularity of the candidates and the media attention given to candidates also played a role. Only a few pages from other candidates appeared in the top 25 viewed by users; these were usually those located near the top of the issue grid.

These findings on how voters seem to be surfing through DNet conform with findings on the way that Internet users generally surf the Web. For example, Xerox PARC's Internet ecology project's law of surfing estimates that the typical user visits 1-1/2 pages on average within a single Web site [10].

A similar pattern of results emerged from our analysis of usage of the pages concerning the digital debate. The order in which questions or issues were discussed on the debate site influenced surfing, with the first questions being viewed most frequently. This linear reading of Web pages from 'beginning to end, despite the possibilities that hypertext creates, is also consistent with findings in other studies [5]. The opinions of the four major candidates were also viewed more frequently than opinions of other candidates. Only a few minority candidates' opinions appeared among the top 25 pages viewed.

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The Future: Supporting Netizens Through a Virtuous Cycle of Utilization

This case study reinforces the view that electronic voter guides such as DNet do not provide a quick technical fix to problems of campaign financing and the limited role that issues can sometimes play in voting decisions. DNet's novelty and limited use by Californians in the 1998 primary allowed major candidates to focus on their own Web sites and traditional media, which campaign staff knew how to use to target specific groups of voters. Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism about the potential of such online guides for netizens.

At the margins, our study demonstrated the Internet can make a difference in the coverage of candidates and issues in political campaigns and elections. For example, DNet did contribute to the provision of a broader and more in-depth discussion of the issues than available over the mass media, if in part because the Internet can build on the content offered through other media. DNet gave candidates with relatively limited resources a better chance to reach the public than they could expect through traditional media. This enabled candidates outside the mainstream to be included in the debate and to make voters aware of their ideas, thereby creating more equity across all candidates. It also compiled a useful array of issue-oriented information of value to campaign staff, journalists, and other political information-seekers.

Looking ahead, there are a number of reasons for believing these positive shoots could blossom. First, the public's use of the Internet in general, and DNet in particular, has continued to increase. Usage in the 1998 general election in California was much higher than in the primary. In the 2000 general elections, DNet will be rolled out nationwide. Second, DNet has gained the support of important Web suppliers and gatekeepers, such as AOL, as well as in real-life politics, for example, from the League of Women Voters who has adopted DNet as its own electronic voter guide for the 2000 elections. Finally, CGS staff is using lessons from its early experiences to redesign features of their Web site to fit their increasingly sophisticated conceptions of their users. For instances, they are rethinking aspects of their issue grid, creating more Web-based linkages with network TV news coverage of candidates at all levels, and looking for better ways of anticipating the Web surfing habits of netizens.

If CGS and similar providers find successful responses to the problems identified in our study, they could enhance the role of information in elections by increasing their networks' reach and appeal. If this happens, a small number of electronic voter guides could gain a critical mass of users that will prime a virtuous cycle for encouraging candidates to follow and support a more issue-oriented debate on the Web. Key questions will then focus on questions like the degree to which information providers increase their editorial role to achieve the critical mass and whether this will make Internet coverage of elections converge toward that of more conventional mass media.

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References

1. Alverez, R. M. Information and Elections. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, MI, 1999.

2. Bellamy, C., and Taylor, J. A. Governing in the Information Age. Open University Press, Buckingham, U.K., 1998.

3. The Center for Governmental Studies. The Democracy Network Wins in California: A Report from the Primary Election. CGS, Los Angeles, CA, June 5, 1998.

4. Docter, S., and Dutton, W. H. The social shaping of the democracy network (DNet). Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age. B. Hague and B. Loader, Eds. Routledge, London, 1999.

5. Douglas, J. Social impacts: The framing of hypertext: Revolutionary for whom? Soc. Sci. Comput. Rev. 11, 4 (1993), 417–429.

6. Dutton, W. H. Society on the Line: Information Politics in the Digital Age. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 1999.

7. Elberse, A., Dutton, W. H., and Hale, M. Guiding voters through the Net. Virtual Democracy: Issues of Theory and Practice. K.L. Hacker and J. Van Dijk (eds). Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, forthcoming.

8. Hacker, K. L., and van Dijk, J. Virtual Democracy: Issues of Theory and Practice. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, forthcoming.

9. Hague, B., and Loader, B. (Eds). Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age. Routledge, London, 1999.

10. Johnson, G. Searching for the essence of the World Wide Web. NY Times (April 11, 1999).

11. Key, V. O., Jr. The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting 1936–1960. Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

12. Westen, T. Can technology save democracy? Nat. Civic Rev. 87, 1 (1998), 47–56.

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Authors

William H. Dutton (wdutton@usc.edu) is a professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

Anita Elberse (aelberse@lbs.ac.uk) is a doctoral student at the London Business School.

Matthew Hale (mhale@usc.edu) is a doctoral student in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California.


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