INTERNAUT

Primaries exercise the Internet's influence and statistical muscle

Shawn P. McCarthy

The presidential primary season has made the Internet a focal point for voters, legislators and courts, all seeking to influence results or to use the Internet to count votes and court voters.

Here are two of the most interesting online campaign developments:

''Alaska Republicans, working with VoteHere Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., last month conducted part of their presidential straw poll online. You can see the results at votehere.net/alaska/default.asp. Turnout was only about 35 voters, but it was an interesting first for the 2000 campaign. VoteHere also helped stage a limited test in Thurston County, Wash., as part of that state's primary.

''A federal judge approved a plan for Arizona Democrats to use the Net to collect votes in the March 11 presidential primary. This first legally binding public election over the Internet was a huge step beyond a straw poll.

The judge denied a request from a local voters group to block the Net vote on grounds that it was unfair to low-income and minority voters, who were less likely to own computers and therefore would be underrepresented in the primary. The state's Democratic Party also disagreed with that argument, and said the plan would result in more Democrats casting votes. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state.

The Democratic Party, not the state, conducts the primary in Arizona. The Democrats worked with Election.com Inc. of Garden City, N.Y., to set up and conduct the online voting. The company's site, at www.votation.com, uses digital certificates from VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

Lack of trust

Internet voting is controversial and untrustworthy to some, and it's unlikely to have an impact on the 2000 presidential winner. But Net voting in many ways resembles the absentee ballot procedures long used in most states. It requires confirming ahead of time that voters are legitimate, then providing a way for them to vote away from the polls and have their votes accurately tallied. Digital signatures or smart cards are the likeliest technologies, assuming privacy issues can be resolved.

Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission has been busy using the Net for projects such as putting election paperwork online. Visit the site at herndon2.sdrdc.com/dcdev/disclose.html to read campaign finance reports from current presidential candidates.

The FEC site also lets you track the activities of political action committees, but only through 1998.

For recent PAC data, visit www.tray.com/fecinfo. Another resource for tracking how money flows through the political system appears at www.opensecrets.org.

FEC has a decent section about local and state finance laws. Check www.fec.gov/pages/cflaw98.htm and decide whether candidates in your local elections are complying.

If you want to know how an incumbent candidate has voted in recent years, visit the Thomas site of the Library of Congress, at thomas.loc.gov. You'll find information on committee, legislation and roll call votes.

At www.vis.org, the site of Voter Information Services Inc. of Reading, Mass., you can see voting records sorted in a slightly more readable format, plus ratings of politicians by advocacy groups.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider.

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