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Net a center for election info

Online voting is still a long way off, but there are many sites offering up-to-date election data as well as background on candidates and issues.

Online voting may still be a long way off, but a quick sweep of Net sites for tomorrow's elections show that digital democracy is definitely catching on.

Home to a high percentage of Net users, it's no surprise that California is leading the way in posting online real-time election results, extensive voter guides, and campaign contribution reports. And this year the state will hold its first open primary, meaning voters' plates are stacked with more issues and candidates to consider. This climate has inspired an array of sites dedicated to state's ballot.

Even states that aren't known as technology hotbeds--such as Alabama, Iowa, and Mississippi--are offering a range of online voter resources for their Tuesday elections.

"Over the past four years, the Internet has moved from novelty to necessity in political campaigns," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation (CVF).

"It's a great trend for voters and for candidates," she said. "It may one day level the playing field for those candidates who have money and those who don't. It costs a lot of money to reach voters though direct mail and TV."

The CVF's Net guide to the primary links to 180 campaign home pages, and includes information on county and statewide races, ballot measures, and races for both congressional and state legislative seats. The site, along with PoliticalAccess, will carry real-time state and county election returns starting after the polls close at 8 p.m.

"The Secretary of State has put real-time results up since 1994," Alexander added. "A lot more counties are putting up online returns this year than did in 1996."

The California Secretarty of State's site houses political party statements and bipartisan details about state measures, and will update election returns every five minutes tomorrow. The site also provides a Java-based ticker to continuously display results on computer users' desktops.

The L.A. Vote site launched by USWeb Corporation and Los Angeles County will post real-time returns every 15 minutes and will email results to people upon request.

"The information will come straight from the state punch-card readers," said Mike Kacaba, managing partner of USWeb. "If you're interested in a certain race or ballot measure, you can be emailed an update every 15 minutes."

Residents outside Los Angeles County's 4,856 precincts can request results to the gubernatorial race via email, for example.

Many of the state's newspapers also have special election sections on their Net sites, which include archived articles about candidates and issues. The Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times, and San Jose Mercury News all have election pages.

For more background on candidates or to find out the location of polling booths, voters also can check out sites that aggregate state and federal information. Among the most inclusive are: Project Vote Smart's yellow pages for online government information, the Democracy Network, and the Center for Responsive Politics for a closer look at campaign financing.