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First Virtual Town Hall Engages Voters Through Internet

The event was the first known online forum on a national scale to take advantage of user-generated questions and the Internet’s streaming capabilities in a presidential election, where technology already is playing a large roll in how voters learn about and interact with the candidates.

MoveOn.org Political Action, the liberal political action committee (PAC) that organized the event and promotes online grassroots activism, estimated that 10,000 of its members gathered in front of computer screens at over 1,000 locations nationwide to hear the candidates’ responses.

Previous online election forums at the state or local level have had candidates answer voter questions through e-mail and then posted the responses. E-democracy.org, a nonpartisan project that encourages voter participation through technology, hosted such an e-debate before Minnesota’s gubernatorial elections. The group also encouraged voters to submit “netizen-generated content,” which included comments, links, blogs, photos and video about the race.

The nationwide virtual town hall took this concept a step further by applying it to a presidential race and gathering voters at events across the country on the same night to watch the presentation.

“It’s politics 2.0,” said Adam Ruben, the political director of MoveOn.org. “It shows how the Internet is changing the way campaigns are run. It’s a way of democratizing the subjects of political debate, rather than the terms of the debate being set up only by the campaigns and the media.”

The questions and answers were pre-recorded and produced into an audio slide show featuring the candidates and then streamed over the Internet.

On screens, a map showed meeting locations across the United States and participants were encouraged to enter comments through the Web site.

All questions were submitted to MoveOn.org and voted on by the group’s members. “We are a membership organization and our role is to help members get involved in changing the country,” said Tom Matzzie, MoveOn.org’s Washington director.

Julie Germany, deputy director of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said this approach lets larger numbers of people into the election process and gives them an opportunity to engage the campaigns.

“The idea is that you [the hosting organization] get your supporters or the audience to help you figure something out — in this case, what the questions to be asked are,” Germany told the Boston Globe on Tuesday. “It gives them the sense that they are actually doing something — that you [the candidates] are buying into them because you are allowing them to have a voice in the discussion.”

MoveOn.org invited candidates that at least 10 percent of its members said they would like to hear. Of the 12 invited — including some Republicans — seven accepted: Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del.; Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.; Barack Obama, D-Ill.; former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. Most answers were recorded within two days of the town hall, except for Richardson, who recorded his on Friday before he departed for North Korea.

Each candidate answered three questions about the war in Iraq and gave brief closing remarks. Candidates did not debate or respond to each other.

The presentation on Tuesday night was cosponsored by Service Employees International Union and Campaign for America’s Future and aired on Air America XM Satellite Radio.

At one of the meeting locations — Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. — around 50 participants and several reporters gathered to watch the event on a projector screen. Following the presentation, participants discussed the candidates’ answers.

Peggy Hanson of McLean, Va., said she supported Obama but came to see how he stacked up against the other candidates. “It’s good for democracy,” she said of the format. “The more we can get people involved, actually involved, in it, the better we are.”

The participants also were encouraged to give their feedback about the virtual town hall and to vote online for the candidate they thought would best lead the country out of Iraq. MoveOn.org said it would announce the results of the survey Thursday, though the group said the results would not equate to a presidential endorsement. When asked whether MoveOn.org would endorse a Democrat in the primary, Matzzie said, “It’s up to the members.”

Two more virtual town halls on global warming and health care are planned for the summer.

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