Decades ago the first prime ministers and presidents transfixed nations with television, replacing incumbents who couldn't use the power of the new medium. It's now twenty one years since Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, and so high time to put telly to rest and let internet take over as the most influential medium for deciding who runs a country. Not because it's sexy, but for the uncontroversial reason that while TV commands people, the internet better fosters learning, debate, and discussion.
The last New Zealand Election Study is one term behind (i.e. 2008) but shows statistics you'd expect; for example, 70% didn't have internet or didn't use it during the last general election campaign, and that pamphlets, newspapers, and radio broadcasts were primary influences on voters. The 2011 election study will be published in March next year, and will no doubt show internet as having a higher influence. But I'd wager most of that website traffic is no different to TV and pamphlets because it would have been dominated by two categories:
The main exception to this, in other words where the internet provided more than what old media can do, would be elections.org.nz and electionresults.govt.nz. These government sites are built to serve the mechanics of the elections: to help people enrol, know the address of a nearby voting booth, and later learn what the vote counts are. They provide a necessary service but don't help voters choose who to vote for or to take more interest in voting.
There were several websites that did set out to do this, such as vote.co.nz, OnTheFence.co.nz, TheyWorkForYou.co.nz and electionresults.co.nz/iPredict to name a few. All were (and are) good ideas and websites but are arguably just experiments in how to use the web for elections because none of them attracted a major percentage of the voting population. There's also obvious gaps:
- A full calendar of public debates around the country and running some debates online. (Why not add video archives and transcripts, too?)
- A popular mechanism to submit written questions to parties and see their answers, all in public view.
- Simple forms of participation. The US presidential race in 2008 saw millions of people text message a key issue (e.g. Iraq, Jobs) to a Google project. This formed an interesting grass-roots political map visualisation, but the actual success is it got a whole lot of people taking the first step to engaging in political thought prior to election day. The trick is then to get some of them to learn and discuss further.
It will be fantastic milestone when all of these types of online resources are available, popular, coordinated with each other, (and politically neutral) weeks ahead of elections. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter also have a role to play. Half the challenge is building a fantastic environment of tools, information and resources, and the other half of the challenge is to get people to care and use them. If we can crack this, television can be left to be the thing you watch with your family and friends while votes are counted. But of course, you'll check the web in the ads to get more detailed real-time counts and discussion concerning your local area.
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