Voters use Web to express concerns, outrage

While many are flocking to the Net for news as the vote recount in Florida drags on, others are stepping out online as self-styled election referees.

4 min read
Stanford University student Corinne Yates got so fed up with the constant din of postelection discussions in her dormitory that she started her own political Web site to let off some steam.

At SaveThePresidency.com, 20-year-old Yates and her friends can vent their frustrations over the questionable state of the U.S. presidency.

"Instead of just talking about our position in the dorms, we decided to make our opinions public," she said, noting that at least 120 people have signed her online petition urging Vice President Al Gore to withdraw a recount effort and abide by the original tabulation in Florida. Two mechanical vote counts have handed Texas Gov. George W. Bush the state and ostensibly the election by the slender margin of a few hundred votes.

Yates is not alone. While many are flocking to the Net for news as the vote recount in Florida drags on, others are stepping out online as self-styled election referees. Thousands of people are hitting chat boards to sound off, or more rarely, creating their own Web sites detailing their takes on the situation.

As of Monday afternoon, Yahoo's message board had attracted some 373,000 postings on the electoral results; CNN's site carried about 346,000.

Even if personal Web sites are unlikely to draw anywhere close to such traffic levels, that hasn't stopped some from deputizing themselves online election cops.

"A Web site doesn't have any impact until they join discussion groups where they can get exposure," said Rick Birmingham, 29, of Minnesota. "It's like this: If you put a sign on your front step, it doesn't do any good unless someone drives by."

Still, Birmingham started his own Web site last Tuesday night when the media widely reported a voter flip-flop in Florida. News agencies at first said the state's 25 electoral college votes had gone to Gore but later switched the call to Bush. They then retracted again, putting Florida back in the undecided category.

Birmingham's site lists the latest news on the recount in Florida, where the secretary of state has refused to extend the deadline beyond Tuesday 2 p.m. PST.

"I only expected to be at this for two days at the most," Birmingham said Monday. "I can't believe how long this is going on. Now I'm more up-to-date on the situation than I care to be."

Florida's election laws were torn apart on Birmingham's site. Other sites offered the full text of Bush's lawsuit--since rejected--seeking an injunction against the recounting by hand in four of Florida's counties.

Yates' site offered a forum for voters to express outrage and support for one candidate or the other.

"Go away Al," said one email message from W. Thompson in Yates' chat room. "America is getting tired of your crybaby antics...If the presidency is to maintain any vestige of honor, you need to be a big man and give it up."

"Remember people," another said. "The accuracy of manual recount depends on how the balloting is done."

Others defended Gore's decision of hanging onto his razor-edge lead instead of conceding. "There is no official decision on Florida," wrote Malinda Smith. "Therefore it is entirely incorrect to claim Bush the winner."

Another site offered detailed statistical analysis of "voting irregularities" in Palm Beach, Fla., by an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Conspiracy theories abound
The tight presidential election has caused major news and political Web sites, which had previously Want election news? Get it here been starving for traffic, to struggle under the weight of too many visitors.

It's a sign that the Internet has turned out to be an important player after all this election season, said Steve Clift, an online political expert affiliated with WebWhiteandBlue.org, which carried online debates for all of the political candidates.

"The Net is totally abuzz," he said. "Everybody is scouring the Net for the latest news."

While Web sites emerged as a source of some of the most accurate and up-to-date voting data in the wake of Tuesday's ballot, the Internet has also fueled suspicions and conspiracy theories in the wake of reporting discrepancies in the vote count.

On Yahoo, voters on both sides of the fence speculated about election-stealing scenarios.

"The Democratic National Committee paid Telequest (a Texas telemarketing company) to begin calling thousands of voters in West Palm Beach on election night while polls were still open to raise question about the Palm Beach ballot," one visitor in the Yahoo chat room theorized. "Phone calls urged them to contact local election officials and claim they were victims."

Others quoted The Washington Post, which reported that Fox News was the first to declare Florida for the Republicans even though the Voter News Service--which collects exit-poll data--never called the state for Bush. John Ellis, who headed the call desk at Fox, happens to be Bush's cousin, the newspaper said.

Too close to call
The incredibly tight presidential race hinges on a recount of the votes in Florida. The Democrats asked for a recount by hand in four counties, believing that irregularities had deprived Gore of numerous votes in counties that traditionally have been strongly Democratic.

Complaints in Palm Beach of a poorly designed ballot led the Gore camp's suspicions. Others have complained that police intimidated African-American voters from casting their ballots, according to news reports in Florida.

As all eyes focus on the Sunshine State, a close call in New Mexico led to a recount of the votes there, which gave Bush a razor-thin 170-vote lead over Gore. If the result stands, it will shift five electoral votes into the Republican column.

For the moment, Gore leads the electoral contest by nine votes with 255 votes; 270 are needed to win the presidency.