Campaign '98: The Net Effect

Actor Zach Braff introduces actress Rosie Perez to his parents during the cast party for "The Public Sings: A 50th Anniversary Celebration" Jan. 30, 2006, in New York.
The Internet may be steadily changing the way people get their news, communicate and shop, but can it also change how they vote?

While every member of the House and Senate has an email address, and most have home pages, few politicians have bothered to spend any money on Internet advertising.

But the Internet continues to be a deep well of information for curious citizens. Today the World Wide Web contains many more pages on politicians, bills and initiatives than ever before.

In addition, many political Web sites offer voters free access to rich databases containing searchable information on politicians at every level of government, including their voting and attendance records.

All this means that, armed with a computer, voters can get their hands on high quality information, and share it quickly with friends, associates, co-workers and, if they choose, hundreds of thousands of users of newsgroup and chat services.

But is it realistic to expect this level of interest from the average U.S. citizen? After all, less than half of the eligible voters in the country made it to the polls during the 1996 presidential election – the worst turnout since 1924.

Experts also point to this year's abysmal primary turnout as a sign that political apathy is showing no signs of shrinking. A report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate suggests some 12 million registered voters may stay home this Tuesday.

The report based its prediction on the scant 17 percent of voters who participated in the Democratic and Republican primaries this year – the worst turnout since 1970, and a 20 percent percent drop from two years ago.

In spite of this poor track record at the polling booths, many of the Web's most trafficked sites report usage of their political resources is showing a strong, continuous surge.

Executives at sites like Yahoo and Dejanews report that politics-related traffic exploded during the release of the Starr report and thus far shows no signs of slacking.

Yahoo, the Web-indexing site that currently claims some 40 million worldwide users, says traffic to its politics area has grown steadily over the summer, swelling 90 percent in the month of July, and an additional 32 percent in September.

Yahoo's special election coverage has rapidly risen to become the fourth most popular news category.

Yahoo producer Brad Rubin told that his company "wouldn't have built an election resource if they didn't know there was a huge audience for this kind of content."

"In the end, our goal was to give people access to as much information as they want. Is this spreading cyber democracy? Were these people always politically active, or are they new viewers? We don't know ... We do know they want more political information than we've ever delivered before. How bad can that be?" Rubin said.

Written by Sean Wolfe