|Issue No 47||24 March 2000|
Troy Bramston on the Politics of the Internet
Two weeks ago Al Gore won the first ever binding online election, when 37,000 Arizonans cast their votes over the internet in the Arizona Democratic Party primary.
The internet is rapidly influencing the very nature of politics all over the world. But how much of politics has already been influenced by the internet? And what is likely to happen in Australia in the lead up to the next federal election?
The growth in the internet over the past few years has been phenomenal. The internet is already being used for voting in elections, making political donations, campaigning on issues and targeting voters.
According to the ABS, half of all Australian adults have accessed the internet over the past year and this proportion is increasing fast. More than 250 million people are connected to the internet around the world and there are over 10 million internet sites.
Every aspect of our lives is being changed by the internet. You can already trade shares, buy groceries, conduct banking, gamble in Monte Carlo, find out the latest news and weather, participate in real time discussions and video conferencing.
The ALP has often been at the cutting edge of new technology and campaign techniques. In fact the ALP first established a web presence in 1994, one month before the Democrats in the US. But a well maintained website is only scratching the surface when one looks at what is already possible.
Who would think that the fantastic spectacle that is the US primaries could have got more amazing? Well it did.
The primaries are where candidates run for the presidential nomination of their party by contesting ballots in states where they win delegates to their respective national conventions who vote for the candidate.
In December last year, the Arizona Democratic Party contracted a US company, Election.com, to run the world's first ever binding on line election.
The result was that almost 40,000 Arizonans cast their vote online from the closeted security of a computer console. This figure more than tripled the total number of votes cast during the last Arizona Democratic Primary in 1996.
The voting took place over 4 days with a mixture of online voting, postal voting and polling booth voting. Of the three options, nearly 80% chose the internet as their voting method.
For those who chose to vote online, a voter certificate and a PIN was sent out to all the registered Democrat voters. After each vote was cast, their PIN was "punched" so that they couldn't vote again. All in all, it took about 2 minutes.
Is this an option for Australian elections? Why not? Even if a conservative federal government doesn't leap into the information age, there is no reason why trade unions couldn't conduct their elections online. Perhaps not exclusively online, but members could be given an option to vote via a postal ballot or online.
Already in Australia, HSC and university exam results are available online. All a student has to do is type in their student number. Many people conduct banking and buy books online, how is voting any different?
What online voting does is make it easier for people to engage themselves in politics. For those countries without compulsory voting, it may significantly increase voter participation.
Who knows if web users are more likely to vote for the Coalition than the Labor Party, but such considerations will be minor as access to technology, particularly in public spaces, continues to increase.
One of the great inequalities that will emerge in the next few years will be between the information rich and the information poor. Access and affordable access to the internet will be a major policy challenge for politicians in this decade.
That is one reason why it is essential that Telstra remain in majority public ownership. Private telecommunications companies will not invest in remote regional areas to develop communications infrastructure. This is where Telstra can correct a market failure. The $2 billion profits earned each year can be used to roll out internet access all over Australia.
Some commentators doubt the effectiveness of the internet as a mass campaign tool, but few would deny that well targeted email campaigns can be highly effective. Campaigners sending unsolicited email to voters will damage their cause. Email campaigns (not spampaigns) targeted to voters as part of an overall web presence can, however, be an election winner.
In the 1998 US Minnesota gubernatorial race, former wrestler Jesse Ventura relied heavily on email to organise thousands of people all over the state. He advertised his website and was able to compile a 3,000 member index of potential voters and volunteers. Daily emails was sent to voters (who registered) and they were encouraged to send it on to their friends, follow the campaign on his web site, and to participate in an online discussion forum on particular issues. Ventura is now the Governor of Minnesota.
But what is in store for Australia? During the 1998 federal election, all major parties had web sites with news and information updated daily. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald hosted special election websites with updates by the half hour. The ABC had a similar web presence. By the next federal election we can expect this and much more.
Each candidate in every seat will be expected to have a web presence. Email, online chats, discussion groups and more will be a regular aspect of day-to-day campaigning. Advertising political messages on popular sites such as Yahoo, news sites and banking will be an effective way of reaching voters.
Raising funds online will also be an important campaign tool. US politician Bill Bradley raised over $500 million through his web site in his failed presidential run. Log on now to Tony Blair's Labour Party or the Democratic Party in the US and you can donate any sum of money online with a credit card.
In the not too distant future, families will be able to watch digital television, go shopping, surf the internet and download movies from you local video store all without leaving your favorite lounge room chair. The new Sony Playstation console released in Japan weeks ago has internet access which you can enjoy with a remote control or game joystick.
Former Clinton pollster Dick Morris predicts that the internet (or Fifth Estate as he calls it) will usher in a new form of direct democracy which will represent the triumph of the people's politics over the power of the press and broadcast media.
The internet offers each candidate the opportunity to bypass the mainstream media and target voters directly. No longer will voters have to rely on reports by journalists to find out information about a candidate or their policies. The voters can go straight to the candidates web site with the click of a few buttons and find out for themselves what their position is.
Morris predicts one future scenario when you will be able to log onto a candidates web site and talk directly with a video image of the candidate and ask questions and counter questions on many different issues in a sort of virtual reality meeting. People will know that they are not talking to the real person, but the candidates answers and words are theirs as they have programmed in perhaps hundreds of different responses to a variety of questions.
What is possible on the internet is only limited by our imagination.
It has previously been written that the last time that a medium transformed world politics was in 1960. That medium was of course television, and the key event was the presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon broadcast live to a national audience. Many say that Kennedy won that debate and the election because he mastered this new medium and skillfully projected himself and his ideas through the television to a captive electorate.
Like the emergence of television in the 1960s, the internet in the 21st century will continue to transform politics in every possible way.
Troy Bramston is the President of NSW Young Labor. Troy will be online to chat about this piece in Virtual Trades Hall at 1pm this Tuesday
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005