Politics online might curb one?s apathy toward voting

It’s no secret that political apathy reigns in the USA. My voting record — still blank a decade after I turned 18 — is a pretty good example. In our television-dominated culture, presidential campaigns are most visible as network specials, sound byte skirmishes and volleys of easy-to-digest messages. If it were any other way, the product would be a jumbled, ratings-poor mess. Too bad candidates aren’t jars of peanut butter and policies cans of pop.

Compared to television, the Internet is an inherently more democratic medium: There’s potential for reciprocal communication and messages that go deeper than a million pages of ad copy. On the surface, the marriage between politics and the Internet looks like it was made in heaven, a notion that’s sprung boatloads of entrepreneurs to action. One problem: television networks have well-established revenue models. Political dot-com startups don’t.

“The positive side of the Internet is that it allows for a more content-based approach,” noted Jared Polis, a prolific Boulder Internet entrepreneur who sold his startup Stardot Consulting, a Web-oriented political consultancy, two years ago. “Instead of a 30-second spot, you can have a 30-page policy. The challenging part about this business space is to create a successful revenue stream. There’s not much money in the business of politics.”

Charlie Rentschler sees a similar picture. Last year, Charlie and his brother Adam raised $500,000 in seed money from their San Francisco headquarters to develop Bettervote.com Inc., which aimed to match candidates and voters via an online policy questionnaire. The patent-pending application was to be the crown jewel of Bettervote.com, a political portal that also features licensed editorial content. The second round of financing turned into a nightmare, however, when the best-funded political sites, Grassroots.com and Voter.com, showed little viability, which Charlie attributed to those site’s lack of “content or killer apps.” Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending: Bettervote.com is now involved in litigation against a former suitor and will likely end up going under.

“To really have a viable business model, it has to be more specific than just a political portal,´ said Charlie, noting that the most people look to Yahoo! Politics to fill that need. Bettervote.com’s business plan involves offering a new contribution channel to candidates, of which the company takes a cut, as well as accumulating and selling valuable demographic data. While he still believes in the concept, Charlie is not optimistic that the company will survive long enough to put the model into action. “Ultimately, what we set out to do is pretty damn idealistic stuff. At the end of the day, it’s all about how apathetic Americans really are.”On the local front, Boulder-based Votelink Inc. launched Votelink.com five years ago and won many an accolade as an industry pioneer. President and founder Alexia Parks, who was recently named one of the 50 most influential people on the Net by Newsweek, described a familiar landscape. “We were ahead of our time (in ’95), because the audience wasn’t yet there on the Internet,” she said. “Up until this time, there hasn’t been any money on the Internet.” The company was originally geared toward the development of online voting, but has since shifted its focus to avoid legal entanglements and spur revenue growth. Today, Votelink markets a new political tool called PowerVoting to organizations and produces online broadcasts of public hearings.

PowerVoting is an e-mail-based system that allows organizations to, in Parks’ words, “mobilize members to their causes. It expedites the whole process.” To that end, the service features overnight polling and allows organizations to actively transform their membership into a tight voting bloc, whether the group is Greenpeace or the AARP. “It can be used to bring all parties to the table,” Parks added, “and move parties to the table.”

On the money front, Votelink is now pursuing a second round of about $3 million in financing, i.e., “someone that’s going to put money into the company and roll up their sleeves and help launch this new industry,´ said Parks. While Votelink was an early front-runner in the online voting race, it dropped out because of concerns over potential lawsuits arising from hacking, inaccuracy, and fraud. Projecting that voters would be able to vote online in ’04, Parks said, “We’ll be back (to online voting), but we won’t be going there until the picture’s clearer.” (Election.com, the people behind this March’s online Arizona Democratic primary, are the current leaders in this movement.)

Denver-based Fantasyelections.com LLC has a totally different take on what Charlie Rentschler called the “rare triumvirate” of politics, business and the Internet: an online fantasy politics game akin to rotisserie football. In a nutshell, you draft 10 Congressional candidates and score points based on votes and campaign contributions. “Instead of assuming the role of a head coach or manager, you assume the role of a political consultant,” explained Matt Wasserman, one of Fantasyelections.com’s co-founders. “We thought, if there was something innovative and fun, it might get people out to the polls.”

Fantasyelections.com’s revenue scheme is based on advertisements and marketing demographic information. “We’ve definitely seen the business grow, and I think it will continue,” Wasserman said, noting that the site has garnered about 2,000 users since its quiet launch in May. “The Internet political market is getting crowded, but we have something unique.”

Wasserman and company might just have a trump card in their creative marketing ploys: Fantasyelections.com put together an attention-getting promotion at the recent Democratic convention in Los Angeles. “In the spirit of fantasy campaigning, we thought we would have a fantasy debate between a look-alike Al Gore and a look-alike George Bush, with a look-alike Jesse Ventura moderating,´ said Wasserman. The debate drew a crowd of 200 and was also streamed on the Internet.

Considering the passion and creativity that’s been poured into companies like Votelink, Bettervote.com, and Fantasyelections.com, I’m pretty ashamed of my own apathy.

It’s no secret that political apathy reigns in the USA. My voting record — still blank a decade after I turned 18 — is a pretty good example. In our television-dominated culture, presidential campaigns are most visible as network specials, sound byte skirmishes and volleys of easy-to-digest messages. If it were any other way, the product would be a jumbled, ratings-poor mess. Too bad candidates aren’t jars of peanut butter and policies cans of pop.

Compared to television, the Internet is an inherently more democratic medium: There’s potential for reciprocal communication and messages that go deeper than a million pages of ad copy. On the surface, the marriage between politics and the Internet looks like it was made in heaven, a notion that’s sprung boatloads of entrepreneurs to action. One problem: television networks have well-established revenue models. Political dot-com startups don’t.

“The positive side of the Internet is that it allows for a more content-based approach,” noted Jared Polis, a prolific Boulder Internet entrepreneur who sold his startup Stardot Consulting, a Web-oriented political consultancy, two years ago. “Instead of a 30-second spot, you can have a 30-page policy. The challenging part about this business space is to create a successful revenue stream. There’s not much money in the business of politics.”

Charlie Rentschler sees a similar picture. Last year, Charlie and his brother Adam raised $500,000 in seed money from their San Francisco headquarters to develop Bettervote.com Inc., which aimed to match candidates and…