Does Howard Dean's Third-Place Finish in Iowa Rebut the "Internet Election" Concept?
Don't Count on It.

By LAUREN GELMAN

Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004

The results of Monday's Iowa Primary were shocking to many: Howard Dean, widely expected to finish first, or at least second, came in a weak third. Since Dean was seen as the Internet candidate, his finish will doubtless spur a flurry of debate on whether the Internet is capable, after all, of transforming democracy.

Has the Internet's influence in Election 2004 been overhyped? Some have suggested that while the Internet is a valuable tool for organizing and fundraising, it's no match for the big media or on-the-ground campaigning necessary to change voters' minds. But let's not relegate the Internet's impact on American elections to a footnote just yet.

Blog for America, Meetup.com, and Moveon.org are significant steps towards capturing the Internet's potential to transform American politics. Each empowered the citizen to participate in the political conversation and campaign in a manner never before experienced. But they have only begun to suggest the Internet's power to transform the democratic process.

We have yet to experience the true "Internet Election." In that election, the Internet will not simply be a tool for electioneering. Rather, the Internet's design will itself be a prototype for democratic discourse and decisionmaking -- as I will explain.

Election 2000: Using the Internet to Convey Information

It's helpful to remember that the first "Internet Election" actually took place years ago, in 2000 -- the midst of the dot com boom. Then, the Internet was hailed for its ability to allow campaigns to reach more people with more information.

In Washington D.C., where I lived during that campaign season, buzz about how the Internet was transforming democracy was everywhere. Campaign web sites, launch parties for Voter.com and Grassroots.com, and political banner ads foretold the birth of the "Internet Election"--or so said the pundits.

Election 2000 was supposed to be "It": proof the Internet would transform democracy. On this view, before the Internet, campaigning was a mega-media dominated enterprise of high-powered consultants, corrupt ballot-box stuffing precinct bosses and poll-driven candidates. But after the Internet, campaigning would become a democratic utopia where every voter has a megaphone, candidates deliberate carefully, and campaigns respond to voters' individual voices.

Of course, that vision did not realize itself that year. And today, Voter.com is bankrupt, blogs have replaced banner ads, and those campaign websites look quaint to a broadband-addicted public.

What happened? While evolutionary and innovative, the Web trends of the late nineties emphasized a model in which the Internet would be employed simply to convey information to the public. Campaign websites gave Gore and Bush a venue for communicating their message to a wider audience, and the political dotcoms pushed election coverage to voters via centralized sites.

These new uses for the Internet did not reinvent democracy. On the contrary, they merely added the Internet to campaigners' toolboxes -- as another way for candidates to reach voters. The Internet's capacity to cheaply and efficiently connect the one to the many had already been acknowledged; its use in the 2000 election was just one application of this blanket concept.

Election 2004: Using the Internet for Voter Meetups and Campaign-Building

Fast-forward to Election 2004 -- where the idea is not one-to-many, but many-to-many. Today's campaigns and dotcoms harness the Internet to allow voters to talk to one another, not simply to receive information from the candidate's campaign.

Blogs, Forums, Meetups, and the Moveon.org TV ad competition are all many-to-many communication mechanisms. Each empowers citizens -- through technology such as blogging; Web development software; community design tools; and photo, graphics and movie development programs -- to partake in the democratic process. The result is not only online discourse, but also face-to-face debate among voters, and creative and artistic messaging among voters as well.

The Limit on the Dean Campaign's Approach: Centralization

The many-to-many concept used in Election 2004 is a major innovation. But it is far from all the potential the Internet offers when it comes to elections. Why? Because the discourse, debate, and artistry are still all centralized.

Each campaign has a single official website, and a single, centralized official blog. The Dean campaign has a tool to create more Dean-centric blogs, but then each, itself, is a centralized forum.

I don't mean to knock the Dean campaign: Its innovative techniques -- soon copied by other campaigns -- brought new citizen-voters into the traditional electioneering process. In terms of voter participation and involvement, the brilliant Deaniacs' strategies represented a giant leap forward from the typical controlled, public relations- packaged campaign. (Think of Karl Rove's masterminding of the George W. Bush presidential candidacy.)

Nevertheless, even the Dean campaign still maintains a centralized, filtered, top-down approach to electioneering. They tout the 181,555 Dean supporters who attend Meetup.com's Meetup for Dean -- but these occur only once a month, on the day the organization chooses, with the organizer receiving a script from the campaign. Similarly, the next Dean House parties will all occur during the Superbowl.

More examples -- from all of the campaigns, and independent sites such as Moveon.org -- abound. The letter-writing campaigns to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are coordinated through a centralized resource of voter addresses. The Moveon.org-initiated movies were all sent to Moveon.org, which coordinated the voting and raised money to broadcast a single winner.

In each case, innovation had to proceed through a centralized funnel. By comparison, think of an Internet that itself was built on proprietary protocols, where all traffic had to be routed through ATT, funneled through AOL, or okayed by Disney. Fortunately, our own Internet isn't a funnel; it's a "web" or "net" instead.

The Real Revolution That Is Yet to Come: Decentralization

What would decentralization look like, in the context of Internet elections? As Oliver Wendell Holmes taught in the context of First Amendment law, a democracy is best served by allowing for the largest marketplace of ideas. The idea would be to create that marketplace.

Dave Winer, advocate of the citizen-blogger and editor of the Scripting News weblog, explained it this way: Currently, the Dean campaign might choose a blogger who supports Dean, and put him on the Dean bus to blog about the campaign's day. But there's a key difference between that, and having hundreds of citizen bloggers who attend Dean events, writing their impressions--good or bad-- on their own blogs. And it is the latter that's revolutionary.

Or consider it another way: In a sense, a candidate website allows millions to have one conversation. But what about the alternative of smaller groups having a million diverse conversations -- with the best conversations attracting the most participants, and the best arguments convincing the most people?

In these many conversations, voters can deliberate as to campaign strategies, policies, and even candidates. A candidate's official site will never be able to be as frank about his or her weaknesses as an independent discussion among voters can be; yet addressing these weaknesses may be the only way to convince undecideds.

Similarly, Moveon.org chooses the "best" campaign ad and promotes it. But what if, instead, every citizen would create her own TV advertisement endorsing their candidate and post it on their own website? The funnel of the competition would be eliminated, for the better.

Of course, the worst ads might only get a few hits. But the best ads will get more, organically, as links are forwarded to friends, admired on blogs, or referenced by high-hit sites. And terrific ads that might not have suited Moveon.org's judges will still receive exposure.

Why Decentralization Can Be A Hard Sell

This is not an easy sell. Currently, the ultimate electioneering end game is considered to be -- for instance --- a 30 second ad broadcast during the State of the Union, or a feature on the Nightly News that will be viewed by millions. If you need to raise $1.7 million to make the State of the Union ad happen, than centralized fund raising and selection is required. And if you are aiming for that feature, you may need a slick, expensive public relations package to merit Tom Brokaw's attention.

You may also feel that your resources are better spent amplifying the biggest supporters' voices, rather than providing a venue for debate amongst voters themselves. But the Dean campaign has already proved this view shortsighted, and decentralized Internet techniques are likely to undermine it even more.

The brilliance of the Internet's own decentralized design can be translated to the design of decentralized campaigning. But many arguments will be raised against doing this. Voters should be wary, for they will be the very same arguments that were raised against a non-proprietary Internet: Without property there can be no price discrimination; not all content is created equal; and private control spurs competition.

When it comes to Internet elections, however, those arguments are as wrong now as they always were. A competition of ideas need not be linked to proprietary candidate websites and blogs. And voters can sort out content for themselves; they don't need official websites or approved scripts to do it for them.

Democracy Requires Decentralized Discourse

In the true "Internet Election" no campaign, national committee, or organization will decide where and when the conversations take place, who participates, or what is the agenda.

From many conversations, the best arguments and the best arguers will gain traction. Some may jump to other conversations to increase interest in their issues, and others may leave because they're still not convinced. Barriers to entry in any conversation will be low; listening will be valued as much as speaking; and the best ideas will survive because the market for them will only grow.

In the end, voters will turn out to vote in higher numbers because they chose the candidates and policies at issue, on their own terms and timelines. Disillusionment and jadedness about politics will decrease sharply.

In Election 2000, we saw the Internet's power to amplify one-to-many communications. In Election 2004, we're seeing the Internet's power to enable many-to- many conversations. The lesson of the Iowa primary should not be that the Internet matters less than we thought -- it should be, instead, that transforming democracy requires something more than even the laudable efforts the Dean campaign has used so far.

It may be that the politicians and pundits cannot ignore the seductive, tried and true politics of centralized control, in favor of decentralization. And it is likely that decentralization will need to happen -- and succeed -- on the local level before it moves national.

But I'm betting that win or lose, the Deaniacs and a posse of new eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old voters will be back in four years, staging what history deems the real "Internet Election."


Lauren Gelman has written, commented and lectured on Internet Law issues since 1995. She is currently the Assistant Director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society where she is responsible for the daily operations of the Center, litigation and policy projects with students in the Cyberlaw Clinic, and for directing and conducting research on the interaction of new technologies and the law.

FindLaw Career Center

    Select a Job Title


      Post a Job  |  Careers Home

    View More