The Internet is changing the way Americans participate in our democracy. Some political players say the impact of the web on politics is overrated. But others are fighting to make sure more people can use cyberspace to speak their minds on public policy.
The founding documents of American democracy are available online and can be sent to other web users as an attachment with the click of a mouse. Americans can send a 'zip file' to their member of Congress, attaching pages of data supporting their views on the war in Iraq or the latest tax cut proposal. But it's not clear this technology really gives citizens more of a voice in shaping government policy.
"E-mail is one tool in the toolbox," said environmental activist Brett Hulsey, who doesn't think it does. "It's appropriate for some things, like getting basic information out but it's not the be all and end all. You still need the face to face contact."
The director of the Wisconsin Sierra Club says his group's list of more than 6,000 email addresses is useful.. but is used to get people away from their computer screens and out into the community.
"Which is why we've started this neighbor to neighbor campaign in Wisconsin, where we go out and hand out yard signs and flyers on powerplant issues, for example," he said.
He says e-mail is great for giving people the information they need to contact policy makers. But Mr. Hulsey says it's more effective to make the actual contact with old-fashioned technology: telephones and pen and paper.
"There's still no replacement for a handwritten letter or a phone call from a constituent with thoughtful comment," said Mr. Hulsey.
In the Madison office of Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, the volume of e-mail has been rising but letters still outpace the Internet arrivals.. In a typical month, out of 4,000 contacts, 1,500 are email and 2,000 are letters. Ms. Baldwin says her anti-war constituents are the most active web users.
"It's the preferred medium for communication among many activists," said Ms. Baldwin. "I would say that most of our messages on the war in Iraq have been by e-mail."
In addition to messages from people who've taken the time to sit down at their computer and type out their own thoughts, Representative Baldwin receives hundreds of identical e-mails sent by special interest groups. Like most of her colleagues, Ms. Baldwin has redesigned her Congressional web site to reduce the volume of electronic mass mailings. All e-mails to her office must now originate on her web page, so people have to type in their address before they can send her a message. Baldwin aide Adam Young calls it 'embedded e-mail.' He says it's part an effort to serve constituents better and reduce the volume of e-mail by screening messages that come from outside her district.
"It helps to sort out who's a constituent and who's not. Otherwise, people who live anywhere can get the e-mail address and send in their comments and we need to focus on our constituents."
But some see electronic filters that block public access to policy-makers as a fundamentally un-democratic use of the Internet. Cindy Cohn, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says politicians are not responsible only to those who elected them.
"If you're deciding on what the overall tax structure is in this country, you're actually affecting my tax bill in California, even if you're a senator from Wisconsin, and I ought to be able to tell you," she said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working now to prevent federal agencies like the National Forest Service from creating electronic filters that will not just sort but actually reject mass e-mails. The Forest Service says the filters are needed to limit public comment to those who are directly affected by its policies. But Cindy Cohn says natural resources like forests belong to everyone and it's unfair to prevent average citizens from having input on how they're managed.
"The Internet Age has made it possible for the public to be more involved in government decision-making than it was able to be before," explained Ms. Cohn. "There are people within these agencies who aren't just used to that. Our argument is, they have to get used to it. The public's going to have a voice. Your public comment processes will really be public now and that's a good thing for democracy, not a bad thing."
It's not just activist groups that support efforts to keep the cyber doors open to e-mail lobbying. Nick George of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business lobby, is also suspicious of government efforts to ignore certain kinds of public comment.
"It's hard to identify where individual noise comes from in a riot, but you still have a riot," he said. "When individual e-mails come in, organized or not, I think you have to pay attention. We have to be sensitive to trash e-mail, there's no doubt about that. But that's why people identify themselves by who they are and what organization they're with and what their issue is, and as long as you're doing that, I think every single e-mail is relevant."
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce uses e-mail to lobby for tax and regulatory reform. But Mr. George says he doesn't think the new technology has increased industry's clout with lawmakers. His group sends out e-mail action alerts on pending legislation, but he says it doesn't generate any greater response than the pre-web efforts did, using the post office.
"We look at how many e-mails are sent by how many people, and there's probably 10 to 20 percent of our membership that is actively out there doing things, which is probably what it was in the past," said Mr. George. "So I think the people who have done it in the past are doing it now, except doing it through e-mail."
There's clear evidence from the Democratic presidential primary race that e-mail and on line chat groups are having an impact on how candidates raise money and shape their message. But the jury is still out on how effective cyber mail is in influencing those politicians once they're elected.