On Web standards, Libertarian candidates win

In News.com survey of which 2006 campaign sites followed standards most closely, Libertarians topped the charts.

The Libertarian Party hasn't had much success in national elections: It garnered just 353,265 votes in the 2004 presidential race and boasts precisely zero elected representatives in the U.S. Congress.

But a survey of political sites by CNET News.com shows that Libertarian candidates are ahead in the race to ensure their pages comply with a widely accepted litmus test for good Web design, which can aid mobile device users and people with visual disabilities.

Of approximately 1,000 campaign Web sites surveyed two weeks before the Nov. 7 election, only 35 passed the validation tests created by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Seven of those were created by Libertarian candidates, some of whom have degrees in computer or electrical engineering or count themselves as free-software aficionados. (Republicans came in a close second.)

Call the Libertarians the political party of geeks, for geeks.

"I'll be the first to admit that we do have a lot of geeks in the party, and I'm one of them," Shane Cory, executive director of the national Libertarian Party, said Wednesday.

Cory believes tech-savvy Americans are drawn to the Libertarian Party because of its principled support for individual rights, lower taxes, and fewer government regulations. "We take a look at the issues before us and try to find solutions to them, just like you'd troubleshoot a PHP script or HTML."

To compile a list of campaign Web sites to review, News.com used a database of U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate candidates created by Voter Information Services, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group. Then we wrote a computer program to test each campaign Web site against a "validator" maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, and record and then sort the results.

The case for compliant Web design, according to the W3C and an enthusiastic cadre of online professionals, goes something like this: If Web site creators don't abide by industry standards, they risk becoming invisible to search engines, creating accessibility problems for people with vision problems, and making their pages illegible in future versions of Web browsers. Valid Web pages tend to display far better on mobile devices, which use nonstandard browsers.

"Since a lot of the work around Web accessibility starts with following strict markup standards, following (HTML) markup the way it was intended to be used, you actually end up reaching a greater proportion of people," said Janet Daly, a spokeswoman for W3C.

Perils of not following the rules
Relatively few Web sites can pass W3C's strict validation tests. Microsoft's MSN.com, Stanford University, MIT, and Flickr do. But most other Web sites, including Yahoo.com, Google.com, and CNET News.com do not, largely because of the difficulty and cost of rewriting legacy Web pages and because some browsers work better with malformed HTML.

It should, however, be easier for campaign Web sites--which generally have simpler designs and far fewer pages--to follow industry standards from the beginning.

R. Jay Edgar, a Libertarian who is running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in New Jersey, is a programmer who works for AT&T. He says he writes his own code and uses the Firebug plug-in for the Firefox Web browser to ensure that everything is valid HTML.

Of the 35 Web sites found in the survey to comply with industry standards, candidates from the Constitution Party, Independent American Party, and Peace and Freedom Party claimed two each. Four were created by Green Party candidates, six by Democrats and seven by Republicans and Libertarians. (Because the Republicans fielded candidates in every congressional district and the Libertarians did in less than one-quarter of the races, the smaller party won higher marks because it had a higher percentage of candidates who complied.)

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