History of the Minnesota Electronic Democracy Project

G Scott Aikens <gsa1001@cus.cam.ac.uk>
Creator and Director of E-Debates
Minnesota Electronic Democracy
Doctoral Candidate, University of Cambridge, UK
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences

In the early 1990s Al Gore, then a Senator from Tennessee, fashioned the metaphor of an 'information superhighway.' This innovation was a derivative of the National Superhighway initiative championed in the Senate a generation ago by Gore's father. The belief in the potential of computers and an information superhighway was carried by Gore further into the mainstream media as a part of the Clinton-Gore literature in the 1992 presidential campaign. At that time the concept of an "electronic town hall" was also brought into the mainstream media by the Independent candidate for president, H. Ross Perot. The rhetoric about the beginning of an information age was given immediacy by traditional media institutions because the Clinton-Gore and Perot campaigns began to bypass traditional media institutions during the 1992 campaign. Increasingly they reached the public through radio call-ins, satellite television, cable television, C-Span, talks shows, and the like. As a result, in 1993 there was a rapid increase in stories about new technology, computers, and the media business. There was also concern about convergence in the forms of media such as print, audio, and video through computer networks, etc. There was also a new sense of urgency in these stories. The interest in these issues was, once again, furthered by the new administration when it launched a National Information Infrastructure initiative and then a Global Information Infrastructure initiative, as well as calling for a re-write of the 1934 Communications Act.

The Minnesota Electronic Democracy Project (MN E-D Project) was founded in July, 1994 by Steven Clift, a 24-year-old student at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Clift was interested in studying the impact of new communications technologies on governmental organizations and the political process and in the summer of 1994 used his free time to formulate and initiate the Minnesota Electronic Democracy Project. Originally, the project was designed to create a place on the Internet for the public to access information from the candidates and about the candidates running for office in the up-coming state and national elections in November, 1994. Clift drafted a preliminary proposal and sent it to several local electronic discussion lists.

The idea was warmly received by other individuals interested in both information networks and Minnesota politics. Several well-attended electronic democracy meetings were organized. An infrastructure was quickly put into place. Although the Twin Cities Freenet (TCFN) was not yet open to the general public, the main organizers, Scott Fritchie, a systems manager at St. Olaf University in Northfield, and Olaf Holt at the University of Minnesota, had put TCFN on the Web. As TCFN was itself a new organization interested in getting involved in the community, Fritchie and Holt offered TCFN as the host site for the MN E-D Project. A connection between Steve Clift, who had considerable experience and understanding of Minnesota politics, and the technical people involved with TCFN was forged, developing a pathway for political information to migrate onto the Web. Clift would create contacts with people in the political campaigns, put the information on computer disks and give the disks to volunteers to code so it could appear at the MN E-D Project site at the Twin Cities Freenet.

Another key innovation of project organizers was the decision to create an e-mail-based public discussion forum using listserve technology. Dennis Fazio, President of Minnesota Regional Network, a publicly funded Internet Service Provider, agreed to host the forum, MN-POLITICS, using computers at their site. MN-POLITICS was open to anyone who had the ability to send an e-mail message to "Majordomo@MR.Net" asking the computer to subscribe them to the forum. Furthermore, anyone could send an e-mail message to all of the individuals subscribed to MN-POLITICS by sending a message to "MN-POLITICS@MR.NET". Mick Souder, a student investigating the impact of computer-mediated communication at the University of Minnesota, agreed to be the list-manager, meaning that he would watch over the unfolding discussion to make sure the technology and dialogue ran smoothly. Scott Fritchie, who would become the technical coordinator of the project, decided to create an archive of MN-POLITICS at the MN E-D Project site at the Twin Cities FreeNet. He was able to do this using an application called Hypermail. This application posts the exchanges in an e-mail-based listserve discussion to a Web site. As a result, all of the comments from participants in the discussion become available over the entire Internet through hypertext links. In this way, a globally accessible conversation about politics in Minnesota was created.

The infrastructure for the project was in place and open to the public by late August, well in time for the Minnesota primaries in early September, when the major parties would choose their candidates. Through contacts that had been made at all of the campaigns, position papers on a variety of subjects had been made available from candidates running for the United States Senate and Governor of Minnesota. Furthermore, by mid-August, a group of individuals had signed on to participate in the conversation in MN-POLITICS, creating another important dynamic to the project. The stated purpose of MN-POLITICS is as follows, "The Minnesota Politics and Public Policy E-Mail Forum (MN-POLITICS) will promote the sharing of information on and discussion of Minnesota politics and public policy during the election season and beyond. The list encourages discussion from diverse political perspectives that is respectful in nature. This forum is more about the presentation of ideas and information than being right with one's ideology."

Given the stir that had been building in Washington and around the world about information superhighways and electronic democracy, the early experiment was of interest to the media. The metropolitan daily, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, ran a piece in the Metro section, "State politics exploring cyberspace," on September 1. The subheading of the Star-Tribune piece indicated reporter Bob von Sternberg's angle, "Fringe parties, political junkies beat mainstream candidates to electronic bulletin boards." While the media had an eye on the project, they were careful to emphasize the distance between the new technology and the mainstream. They did, however, allow Clift to express his view that the new technology could eventually alter the locus of political power. Von Sternberg quoted Clift, "It's novel and new now, but a few years from now it could help set the agenda, determine how political power is distributed." Although skeptical perhaps, von Sternberg also raised the subject of the democratic potential associated with the new medium, writing, "In effect, the experience of MN-POLITICS bears out what computer aficionados have said all along about the Internet: It's the ultimate democratizing tool, where everyone (and every idea) is equal."[1]

Based on a press release distributed across the Internet by e-mail in early September, the potential of the project was clear. The effort possessed the features necessary to facilitate a an alternative system of public opinion formation. As the press release said, "This is the first citizen-based, state-level, multi-candidate election effort that we are aware of in the United States." At the time no other project had the combination of features possessed from the start by the MN E-D Project. It was designed for the electoral process; it was locally based; it was organized by citizens and civic organizations; it sought to distribute political information directly from the candidates; and it featured an interactive public forum. Most important was the combination of the contacts created with candidates and the e-mail based listserve for citizen dialogue being preserved in a Hypermail archive at the Twin Cities Freenet. Finally, the organizers possessed an experimental approach. They wanted to insert this into the political landscape in Minnesota and observe the results. As the press release concluded, "We hope to learn something about how electronic communication can help improve our representative democracy."

I became aware of the existence of the Project on September 6th, 1994 when I received the press release in another e-mail listserve forum in which I was a participant. Realizing the potential of the project, I decided to travel to Minnesota to conduct field research on the development of electronic democracy during the 1994 elections. I was particularly interested in observing the development of MN-POLITICS. Over the course of the project, I became increasingly involved in the development of the public discussion forum. Immediately after meeting with Steve Clift, the opportunity for involvement was clear and hard to refuse. First, Clift and I possessed a compatible interest in observing and participating in how the new technology would change the distribution of power in the democratic process. It is not insignificant that Clift was a student at the University of Minnesota, working in a program under the direction of Harry Boyte, who has written extensively on John Dewey and American pragmatism. After all, I was studying the new technology from a Deweyan perspective as a graduate student at Cambridge in England. Second, Clift had the attitude that he was the founder of an infrastructure in which volunteers would have as much latitude to get involved as they desired. Third, Clift had accepted a job at the Minnesota Government Information Access Council, assisting in the design of state information services and the development of state policy. While he would stay involved in the project throughout, his new position in government required that he step into the background. Not only did the MN E-D Project possess tremendous potential, but organizers were eager for assistance.

In any event, the combination of the e-mail listserve technology and the Hypermail archive proved to be very effective as a unit of political machinery. From September 1 to October 18, 431 separate messages were sent to MN-POLITICS and archived at the Twin Cities Freenet. On September 1, 128 individuals had subscribed to MN-POLITICS. By the Minnesota Primaries on September 13, when the political parties would choose their candidates for the November 8 election, 244 individuals had subscribed. By the end of the first period on October 18, 308 individuals had subscribed.

Between September 28 to October 18, I became an active participant in MN-POLITICS. My contributions were designed to experiment with what I had discerned to be the potential of the medium and the particular implementation of the medium. For example, I created my own vehicle for communication within MN-POLITICS, a journal called AGORA - THE MN E-D CHRONICLE. The name "agora" was, of course, taken from the name of the marketplace in which citizens discussed the issues of the day in the classical Athenian city-state. The Statement of Purpose of AGORA listed three aims: "1. To facilitate the democratic process in MN. 2. To discuss the construction of a new public space, a prototype for an electronic town hall. 3. To explore the relationships between the new electronic medium and the traditional media." AGORA was used to aid the further development of the project into an alternative system of public opinion formation. The primary strategy was to further awareness of the presence of the MN E-D Project in the community and to involve actors in the political process in MN-POLITICS. The first entry was the story of my effort to establish the MN E-D PRoject as an official member of the media by securing a White House press pass to a rally for Ann Wynia, one of the candidates for the Senate, at which President Bill Clinton would be the featured speaker. Subsequent entries included a critical account of the campaign process by a former campaign manager; a report of my experiences on the campaign trail with the Republican candidate for Senate and eventual victor, Rod Grams; a piece written by a woman running for Lt. Governor of Wisconsin; and press releases in electronic form from Minnesota candidates. The last two offerings were part of a deliberate strategy to involve candidates in the deliberation taking place in MN-POLITICS. This strategy culminated in a challenge to the candidates to contribute to AGORA. Based on developments during this period, Steve Clift and I eventually agreed that it would be possible to organize the Electronic Debates or E-Debates. Approximately four weeks before the election, I wrote a proposal for the E-Debates that was given simultaneously to the candidates, the League of Women's Voter's of MN who were asked to sponsor the debates, and the media.

Once the proposal had been submitted to the relevant parties, myself and other organizers began to publicize the E-Debates on MN-POLITICS, elsewhere on the Internet, and in the local and national media. The media took an interest in the project, the League of Women Voters of MN agreed to co-sponsor the project, and, one by one, the two major party candidates running for the United States Senate, and the two major candidates running for Governor of the Minnesota agreed to participate.

On October 19, an official announcement was made of the two political debates that would be hosted on the Internet and in MN-POLITICS. The E-Debates occurred between October 23 and November 5. The first E-Debate involved candidates running for Governor of Minnesota and the second E-Debate involved the candidates for the United States Senate. A separate e-mail listserve, MN-DEBATE, was created to provide a secure candidates-only platform for the formalized debate. While MN-POLITICS was open subscription and open submission so that anyone could join and contribute, MN-DEBATE was open subscription and moderated submission. Anyone could join MN-DEBATE, and therefore read submissions, but a moderator was in place to ensure that only submissions pertaining to administrative matters and submissions from the candidates were permitted. Not only did this provide a secure platform for a candidate debate but it allowed citizens the option of viewing the E-Debates without themselves participating. As the E-Debates were forwarded into MN-POLITICS, citizens also had the option of joining in and commenting on the E-Debates along with fellow participants.

Each E-Debate lasted five days. The first ran from Monday, October 24 to Friday, October 28; the second ran from Monday, October 31 to Friday, November 4. Five candidates participated in each E-Debate, including all major party candidates. The candidates were given three debate questions on the Saturday before the E-Debates. They were required to send a 500-word response to the first questions to MN-DEBATE on the following Monday between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. They were required to send a rebuttal to an opponents original response that same afternoon. The candidates were required to send in responses and rebuttals to the second and third questions in like manner on Wednesday and Friday.

During this period, 512 separate messages were sent to MN-POLITICS, including 71 forwarded from MN-DEBATE. Furthermore, at their peak on November 1 and November 2, 137 citizens were subscribed to MN-DEBATE and 530 citizens were subscribed to MN-POLITICS.

There were a countless number of decisions to be taken before the E-Debates had ended. Each decision was necessarily influenced by both practical concerns and a notion of what a democratic machinery required. First among the practical concerns was a calculus about what it would take to convince the candidates to participate. For example, the primary goal leading into the E-Debates was to involve the major candidates for the US. Senate race and the Minnesota Governors race. In focusing on securing the participation of these four individuals the fact that the E-Debates would be open to both major and minor party candidates was not emphasized. Once the major candidates agreed to participate, the rest of the candidates were invited to participate as well. The importance of this concession to practicality is that it emphasizes the power wielded by candidates in negotiating the terms of participation. In other venues the candidates invariably backed out when it became clear that minor party candidates would be involved. They did not back out of this venue, I assume, because the campaign staffs realized that the venue was experimental and believed it to be unlikely to have a long enough reach into the population. Furthermore, the candidates were not required to type the responses and rebuttals to the questions but were required to be involved in drafting the responses. This was necessary to minimize the effort required by the candidates to take part in the E-Debates and maximize the potential for discussion in the public forum. The major candidates did not, in fact, draft their own responses. In fact, the juxtaposition of the major party candidate responses and the minor party candidate responses was significant.

Second among practical concerns were a large cluster of decisions that resulted in the basic format of the E-Debates as described above. For example, there were two E-Debates run consecutively over a two week period. Each E-Debate consisted of three questions, responses, and rebuttals, and each debate was stretched over a five-day period. The intention was to concentrate on a few specific issues and stretch each debate over a week so that participants in the MN-POLITICS would have time to discuss the E-Debates and issues as they developed. Furthermore, the inclusion of the rebuttal feature was an effort to highlight interactivity between the candidates. In MN-DEBATE, candidates were encouraged to learn how to use the interactive feature of the technology. Some used this feature better then others and therefore had an advantage in this forum. More importantly, in using the rebuttal feature correctly within the debates such individuals demonstrated how it can be an effective tool for candidates in the future. Finally, two lists, MN-POLITICS and MN-DEBATE were used. The manner in which these lists were implemented and interconnected is indicative of the democratic theory underlying the project. As has been described, one list was an open forum for citizen dialogue and the other was a moderated forum for focused candidate debate. The lists were linked because the candidate debate was forwarded to the open citizen dialogue.

Several respondents commented on the lack of a moderator in MN-DEBATE and MN-POLITICS. These respondents wanted someone to make certain the candidates answered the questions in MN-DEBATE and wanted to impose some sort of editorial function on the submissions to MN-POLITICS. In MN-DEBATE, I thought it unwise to impose strict rules on the candidates. It would be difficult to demand too much from them, especially as the forum reached only approximately 700 citizens directly. MN-POLITICS wasn't moderated either. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that the technology makes it difficult. Another reason is that I wanted to minimize my role in the development of the public forum once it was underway. For methodological reasons to do with my academic research, I was careful to separate my perceptions of events in MN-POLITICS from my function as E-Debate facilitator.[2]

Finally, the original intention was to develop the questions used in the E-Debate by asking the individuals who were already participating in MN-POLITICS. They did not provide a substantive contribution at first because, I think, they were skeptical about whether the debate would actually take place.[3] I formulated most of the questions used in the E-Debates by gleaning ideas from conversations in MN-POLITICS, in conversation with Steven Clift, and in consultation with the League of Woman Voters of Minnesota. Once it was clear the E-Debate would take place, I returned to MN-POLITICS and asked for suggestions again. This time, a number of replies were submitted from which the final question of the Senate E-Debate was fashioned. This demonstrates that it is feasible to ask the participants in the public forum in which the debate will take place for the questions if there is some certainty that a debate is, in fact, going to take place. I believe the best way to develop questions is through a consultation between the debate moderator and the citizens-participants.

The MN E-D Project was well received by the local national and global political media. In fact, based on my experiences, I believe there is an important link between civic participation and the local media in the age of the Internet. MN E-Democracy 1996 will host another United States Senate debate. Our goal is to get between 6,000 and 10,000 Minnesotans involved in the deliberation. To achieve this goal, we will receive assistance from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online, MN Online (a collaboration between Twin Cities Public Television, Minnesota Public Radio, and Minnesota Regional Network) and the Internet presence of the St Paul Pioneer Press, the Pioneer Planet. In addition, we hope to promote other local electronic democracy projects around the country and world. It would be great if E-Debates took place for Senate races, House races, state races, city council races, etc. in every community. For example, some people in England including myself are planning a UK E-Democracy Project based on the Minnesota E-D Project model. What would be particularly exciting is if enough local e-democracy projects emerge around the country to convince the presidential candidates - Clinton and Dole - to participate in a national presidential E-Debate. This could be the birth of a National Electronic Democracy Network - and, eventually, even a Global Electronic Democracy Network.

Endnotes

  1. von Sternberg, Bob. Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "State politics exploring cyberspace". September 1, 1994. p.1B.
  2. I did occasionally make suggestions to guide the forum along, urging people to make contributions or setting limits on the number of posts once it became apparent that certain individuals might well seek to monopolise the conversation.
  3. At that point the candidates had not accepted the invitations.