Monday, June 23, 2003

Congress Online: Much Sizzle, Little Steak

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
June 24, 2003

Congress Online: Much Sizzle, Little Steak


WASHINGTON, June 23 — By now, almost every representative and every senator in Congress has a Web site. The sites offer a cornucopia of personal and hometown lore, in most cases virtually everything except what becomes legends most: their voting records.

For example, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Republican of Colorado, bursts from his home page in a leather jacket, showing off his motorcycle, which is decorated with stars and stripes. Senators John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrats, give links to recipes for down-home Southern cooking.

None of these sites disclose the lawmakers' votes. And these sites are the rule.

A New York Times analysis of the Web sites has found that only 11 percent of senators and 40 percent of representatives provided some kind of information about their voting records, either a partial list of their major votes or a link to a vote-listing service. Many list their opinions, the bills they have sponsored and press releases. Only one senator, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, provides her complete voting record.

Surveys by other groups suggest a strong desire by citizens to see the voting records of their lawmakers. Extensive work has been done on this subject by the Congress Online Project, a program financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts to improve electronic communication between members of Congress and the public. In addition, Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, has organized Congressional interns to prod their bosses to post their voting records on their Web sites. Focus groups told the Pew researchers that they were not interested in every vote but wanted know the important ones.

The Times analysis found that besides Senator Feinstein's, the model sites were those of two Republican representatives, Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia. Links to their voting records are heralded prominently on their home pages.

Others offer links to services like the Library of Congress's Thomas service (, Project Vote Smart ( or, which can direct viewers to individual votes.

Some legislators are overhauling their sites to provide such links. Senator Breaux, for example, is in the midst of a redesign. His spokesman, Brian Weiss, said it would include a link to the Thomas service.

Some sites are so poorly designed that even when a link is available, it is not easy to find. Nothing on the site of Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, who appears on his home page with a green lei around his neck, refers to his voting record. Only by clicking on "links" and then stumbling into "federal government" — not the obvious repository for a voting record — can one then click on and find a vote by navigating from there.

Paul Cardus, Senator Akaka's press secretary, said the site was being updated and would probably add a direct link and call it "voting record" to take the viewer to Thomas.

Some Web pages offer no links at all. Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who is running for president, does not list his votes on his fairly limited House Web site or on his flashier campaign site. His spokesman, Erik Smith, said he knew of no demand for the votes but thought that listing them might be a good idea.

Critics like Mr. Nader say that while the links to services can help find a vote or two, trying to compile a voting record by year and by issue from these links is cumbersome, confusing and time-consuming.

Mr. Nader says some members are trying to obscure their votes.

Others take a more benign view. Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helped with the Congress Online Project, said many members were just getting up to speed with online technology.

"There is a learning curve," Mr. Fitch said.

He said some members had told him they did not provide quick access to their voting records because they did not want to do the research for their challengers back home.

Mr. Fitch says he responds like this: "I tell these members that I'm letting them in on a little secret — that the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee have computers, and this information is available."

He added: "The only thing a member does by not providing this information is send the wrong message to constituents. You're inviting them to go someplace else, and that's a lost opportunity, from a political and a communication standpoint."

It is not clear, however, that all lawmakers are behind the technology curve. Representative Wolf said he started making his voting record available by newsletter as soon as he was elected to Congress in 1980; an opponent had told voters they could "look up" his record, so Mr. Wolf promised to send his record out.

He adapted to the Internet without difficulty and lends his assistant to help others set up sites.

"It's like opening up a book," Mr. Wolf said. "You want everything to be there. And of course your votes should be. Ye shall know them by their fruits, they say, and our votes are our fruits."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Friday, June 20, 2003

Democrats vie in Internet 'primary'

Democrats vie in Internet 'primary'

Fri, 20 Jun 2003

Some activists smell something fishy about next week's Web-based "primary" to test the early strength of Democratic presidential contenders. While a number of the candidates are urging their supporters to vote in the event, some strategists see it as skewed toward Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who shares the group's antiwar views. "It appears to be rigged," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign.

SMITH CHARGED THAT people who registered on the Web site this week immediately received an e-mail from Dean, but from no other contender, trying to win their support. "It doesn't look like every candidate was given an equal opportunity," Smith said.

"I'm sorry people feel that way," said co-founder Wes Boyd. "A few days ago, some of the campaigns weren't taking this vote seriously." But now that the event has gotten some news media and grass-roots attention, Boyd said, "some campaigns are trying to delegitimatize this process."

Launched in 1998 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, says 1.4 million people have participated in its petition and mobilization efforts.

Boyd said he expects "hundreds of thousands" to vote in next week's event, which will be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. For comparison, about 156,000 voted in the 2000 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

Boyd said his group sent a memo to all nine Democratic contenders explaining how the primary would work. In a pre-primary straw poll, the group determined that the three favorites among its members were Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Only the three favorites get a promotional e-mail sent out on their behalf to people who register to vote in the event.

Playing down the importance of the vote, one operative working in a 2004 campaign said, "It is widely recognized that this is Howard Dean's guaranteed win."

The group will announce the outcome of the vote Friday. If any of the contenders garners more than 50 percent of the votes, he'll get's endorsement for the Democratic nomination.

"We're setting a high bar; it will be very difficult for anybody to achieve that," said Boyd.

He said the group decided to conduct its self-styled primary early in the campaign because "ordinary people should get involved and not let the pundits and big contributors determine the field."

A Dean victory in the primary would add a positive note to what has been a recent series of news-making coups for the Vermont maverick. Last week, Dean launched the first television ads run so far by any Democratic presidential contender.

And last weekend at the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention, in a straw poll organized by National Journal's Campaign Hotline, Dean placed first, although only 352 votes were cast. has played a lead role in opposing President Bush's Iraq policy and is currently running newspaper ads with the headline "MISLEADER" superimposed on a photo of Bush.

ACCUSES BUSH OF LYING :The ad says, "The evidence suggests that ... the American people were deliberately misled. It would be a tragedy if young men and women were sent to die for a lie."'s antiwar orientation seems to give a decided advantage in its primary to the two contenders who have been most outspoken in opposing Bush's Iraq policy, Dean and Kucinich.

So why, then, have Democratic hopefuls Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards -- who all voted to authorize Bush's invasion of Iraq -- urged their supporters to take part in the event?

Lieberman campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera told, "We encourage our supporters to participate, but we encourage them to participate in as many venues and forums as possible."

But Cabrera acknowledged, "When it comes to organizing in cyberspace, the advantage goes to other campaigns. We recognize that Howard Dean has made an extraordinary effort when it comes to organizing people online."

Gephardt campaign spokesman Smith said Gephardt was competing in the primary because "we don't to write anybody off. These ( members) are passionate Democrats."

One prominent Democrat who is not affiliated with any campaign was critical of's timing. Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democratic Network, a centrist fund-raising group, said might diminish its clout by endorsing a candidate so early.

"My concern in that this primary -- and if they end up endorsing (a candidate) -- could dramatically limit their long-term ability to be influential in the Democratic Party," said Rosenberg. "They have taken an enormous risk. I hope they know what they are doing." staffer Zack Exley recently took a two-week leave of absence from the group to work as paid consultant for the Dean campaign on how to improve its Internet voter mobilization tools.

Exley said had offered to share its expertise with other Democratic presidential contenders as well. His work for Dean, Exley said, "should not be interpreted as a sign that the Move.on staff has an interest in endorsing Dean."

He added, "We're supporting all the Democratic candidates" by offering to spread's Internet expertise.

One computer expert suggested there's reason to question the validity of any Internet vote.

"It is impossible to ensure an accurate vote over the Internet, using conventional computer hardware and software (e.g., PCs running Windows, etc.)," said Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of a group called People For Internet Responsibility.

"The fundamental nature of these systems makes them open to voting compromise in a vast number of ways, most of which could be completely hidden from the user," said Weinstein. "Vote hackers could even plant viruses on systems way in advance that would just sit and wait for an election."

Asked about Weinstein's analysis, Boyd conceded there may be "opportunities for abuse" in the vote, but he noted, "there are opportunities for abuses in our larger electoral system as well."

The group has commissioned a telephone exit poll of a sample of those who take part in next week's vote to see if the sample jibes with the total raw vote. If the exit poll is substantially at odds with the total vote, Boyd said, the group may try to find out if the vote was manipulated in some way.

Putting aside the technical questions, if Dean does indeed win the vote, the rival campaigns will quickly seek to, as they say, just move on.