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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.)

"The notion of being able to reach the full range of people that make up voters is good enough reason to be using valid markup (language)," said Daly from the W3C. "The most transparent and self-serving of reasons is the most important reason in a campaign: You want people to know about you and you want to encourage them to vote for you, so there's no reason to put impediments based on markup."

Out of roughly 535 members of Congress, News.com found that only four incumbent House members and no senators running for re-election passed the test. The four incumbents with passing grades: Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, both Democrats, and Dave Reichert of Washington state and Mike Sodrel of Indiana, both Republicans.

"Can you find another political party with a tech-savvy board like this? I can tell you it's not going to happen."
--Shane Cory, executive director of the national Libertarian Party

House staffers were "really all about being W3C compliant for any official site," said Jim Metzler of Reach Out Communications in Timonium, Md., who developed Ruppersberger's campaign Web site. "Occasionally things get out of sync and we have to go in and make a couple of changes to make sure it's back in compliance."

The Web design field is replete with cautionary tales about how sites that don't follow industry guidelines risk crashing browsers or vanishing from search engines. A simple example would be the <title> HTML tag, which search engines scan when trying to decide how to rank a Web site. A typo could quietly remove the offending Web site from search engines' indexes.

"In this day and age, the Internet is the main source of information for everything, especially in a political campaign," said Josh Feinauer, the campaign Webmaster for LaVar Christensen, a Republican seeking a House seat in Utah. "You've got to make sure everything works, that it has all of those standards."

Open-source activist, political candidate
To be sure, even strict compliance with HTML and XML standards hardly guarantees , as Parker4Congress.com and RogerIPrice.com demonstrate. By way of analogy, someone who can speak grammatically correct English may have a limited vocabulary, and a photographer who can operate the dials of a camera flawlessly may have no sense of beauty or perspective.

Josh Hansen, a House candidate with the Independent American Party of Nevada, is considered--at least by his father--to be a "Web standards compliance freak." The IAP of Nevada is an offshoot of the Constitution Party and stresses downsizing the federal government and stopping illegal immigration.

Hansen says that his inspiration for adherence to Web standards came from Zeldman.com and Jeffrey Zeldman's book "Designing With Web Standards." Also, as a Linux and Apple Computer Macintosh user, he wasn't using Internet Explorer and knew firsthand that not all Web browsers render a page identically.

It's not "that people are making a conscious decision not to follow Web standards," Hansen said. "It's that most people don't understand Web standards. I think a lot of Web development tools have turned a lot of people who are document writers into what they think are Web guys because they can take a word document and turn it into an HTML document and throw it up online."

But it was the Libertarian candidates who seemed to be the most tech-savvy. The party's vice presidential nominee in 1996, Jo Jorgensen, was head of a small software company, and its 2004 presidential nominee was an assembly language programmer. Its platform talks about Internet freedoms and "eliminating all restrictions" on the "private development, sale, and use of encryption technology."

Mike Sylvia, a FedEx employee, is campaigning as a Libertarian for a House seat in New York. He says he runs Debian Linux on his home computer and uses Mozilla Composer to build his pages. "I'm a member of the Ithaca Free Software Association," Sylvia said. "They're independent spirits."

The list of board members for the national Libertarian Party is no less geekish: a software engineer; a database consultant; an author of a book on Linux system administration; the CEO of a Web application company; and the creator of PocketMoney personal finance software for Palm handhelds.

"Can you find another political party with a tech-savvy board like this?" said Cory, the Libertarians' national chairman. "I can tell you it's not going to happen."