Plante: Our first reader, Frank M. asks "What role, if any, will the Internet play in the outcome of this years presidential election?"
deLaski: It won't have an impact on the final outcome this year. It won't be the deciding factor. The biggest impact we have seen was John McCain; the way he was able to circumvent the Republicans party machine that anointed George W. Bush. The Internet has allowed the candidates to set up their own publishing empires and take the town meeting notion that became popular in the '92 election and take it to a whole new level where they have their entire press operation and direct contact with the voters on their websites. The problem is that they have to get people there. And I think they found that more challenging than they expected - how do they get people to come to their websites. Theyre struggling with the same thing that every Internet portal and internet site is, which is marketing their web site to get people to come.
Plante: Kerry wants to know "Do you ever foresee the advent of online voting in a national election? Will the Internet be secure enough to ensure there is no voting fraud?"
deLaski: I think it will be a good ten years before you see it tried in a national election in this country. But I think it will only be two to four years before you see it being used more extensively in primaries, third party elections, as a way to get overseas expatriates the ability to vote, military bases for people who are overseas, or even absentee ballots. I don't see it being used on a national scale yet - probably for ten years - because of the reasons the reader mentioned, which is that we have to have contained experiments for another couple of cycles, while we make sure we can make it fraud-proof.
Plante: "Al Gore has taken flack for his statements about 'inventing' the Internet. While not true, he has been a leading proponent of the new technology," notes Tierney. She asks, "Do you think he has taken advantage of this in his campaign? How about George Bush?"
deLaski: I do remember back in the '80's when Al Gore was going on about the "information superhighway" and I was trying to figure out which highway he was talking about. He certainly knew about the Internet before I did.
I often get asked who's doing a better job utilizing the Internet. They've both been strong in using it as an organizational tool to raise funds, get volunteers. The Republicans have done an art auction on their site, the Democrats have done some interesting things with fundraisers online. If he id invent the Internet, I don't see that Al Gore has a leg-up in his policy development on Internet matters.
Plante: Are there any candidates who are making particularly good use of the Internet in getting their message across?
deLaski: There really hasn't been that sort of break-through. Hillary and Lazio haven't really blown me away with their sites. There's actually a project that George Washington University is undertaking, that we're going to be helping them with, where whenever you go to a site theres going to be an opportunity to rate it. You know, rate the candidate's website. We dont have that up and running yet, but we'll be able to get that feedback directly from voters.
Actually I think the best creativity has come from the Gore and Bush campaigns in this cycle. I was expecting some more from third party candidates, because they had been quite good in the '96 campaign. You haven't seen the Libertarians who are so well known as being the early 'net pioneers.
I would say the most interesting things have come from the major party candidates which has surprised me.
Plante: It's been estimated that there is a core group of about 25% of Americans who are not "wired" into the web, and have no plans to do so, for a variety of reasons including cost, fear of technology and simple lack of interest. What needs to be done to bring these folks into the fold?
deLaski: Ah, the digital divide. It's the question that worries us all. AOL is involved, as are other companies, with the most exciting project Ive seen on this front. It's called "Power Up" which is putting computer centers into communities. Many states have adopted it wholesale and putting up these sites to help that segment of the population - the 25 percent you're talking about. We're trying to reach them a an age when they're not afraid of the technology and can come on board. That kind of process takes time. It's not something we're going to fix in this election cycle or even the next one, but those kinds of programs puts us in the right direction.
Plante: How do you see the government using the web to make life easier for citizens?
deLaski: The federal government just announced something called firstgov.gov. The government is trying to index all the federal government sites into one place. What other companies are doing, and AOL is one of several, is to package up everything the government is trying to do. We package it up by consumer demand or by consumer needs, instead of by bureaucracy. So if you go in looking for food stamps how do you know that you have to go to the Agricultural website, and how do you know that it's USDA.gov. Or if you want to renew your driver's license in a state like Virginia - you can do it online - but you would never be able to find the site. Sites like ours are trying to serve it up all in one place on the web. The government is doing a good job. I would say federal and states are really starting to come along, particularly in developing applications. Some of the things you always had to do standing in line for, can now be done on the web.
Plante: And finally, Richard writes, "Looking into a crystal ball, do you think the Internet will change government and campaigns in any profound ways?"
deLaski: One thing you wonder is, will the campaign event as we know it, will cease to exist one or two campaign cycles down the line. They feel very staged right now. When they set these events up, say a rally, the candidate comes, people are bused in, signs are handed to them, and it's really just done for the photo-op and the TV cameras. You could get to a point where you dont actually need to do that. You could just have this web site with a virtual campaign.
I started thinking about that when Jesse Ventura's webmaster - who had a very successful web effort in his campaign in '98 - said that they did not set up a campaign headquarters until the last few weeks. And the only reason they did it, was to sell t-shirts. They ran the whole campaign through a web site and through email. I can see campaigns going that way completely.
About Bill Plante