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Journal of Government Information, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 1–9, 1998 Copyright © 1998 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA.

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Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge, New Museums Site, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RQ, United Kingdom

Abstract — This article is an account of the early history of Minnesota Electronic Democracy (MN E-Democracy). The project was among the first political sites on the Internet and featured the first online debates involving political candidates at the state and national level. The focus of the article reports on the process of constructing the project, the structure of the public forums in which approximately 700 citizens participated, and the thinking behind the configuration of the online debates, which were forwarded into the public forums, creating a successful electronic town hall. © 1998 Elsevier Science Ltd Keywords — Minnesota, Democracy, Internet, Debates, U.S. Senate

INTRODUCTION In the 1980s Albert Gore Jr., then a Senator from Tennessee, fashioned the metaphor of an Information SuperHighway. This was a derivative of the national automobile superhighway initiative championed in the Senate a previous generation by Gore’s father. Gore carried his belief in the potential of computers and an information superhighway further into the mainstream as a part of the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign. At that time the Independent candidate for President, H. Ross Perot, also brought the concept of an “Electronic Town Hall” into the mainstream. Traditional media institutions gave the rhetoric about the beginning of an information age even more immediacy through reports that the Clinton-Gore and Perot campaigns were beginning to bypass traditional media institutions during the campaign. Increasingly, they reached the public through radio call-in shows, satellite television, cable television, C-Span, and television talk shows [1]. This caused an, as yet unabated, interest 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. The new administration again furthered interest in these issues when it launched a National Information Infrastructure initiative and then a Global Information Infrastructure initiative, as well as calling for a rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act [2].
*G. Scott Aikens was the founding organizer of the 1994 Minnesota E-Democracy program and online debates. He was also the project coordinator for the Minnesota Town Hall, 1996. In addition to working currently with U.K. citizens in online democracy projects, Aikens is a Ph.D. candidate in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. His dissertation is tentatively entitled “American Democracy and Computer-Mediated Communication—A Case Study in Minnesota.” 1



FOUNDATION Steve Clift, a 25-year-old student at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded the Minnesota Electronic Democracy (MN E-Democracy) Project in July 1994 ( Clift had been active in Minnesota politics since his college days at Winona State University, where he was the Chairman of the Young Democrats of Minnesota. Clift was also interested in studying the impact of new communications technologies on governmental organizations and the political process. Originally, the project was designed to create a place on the Internet for the public to access information from the candidates as well as information about the candidates running for office in the upcoming state and national elections in November, 1994. Clift drafted a preliminary proposal and sent it to several local electronic discussion lists. Others interested in both information networks and Minnesota politics embraced the idea warmly. Several well-attended meetings were conducted. An infrastructure was quickly put in 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) and Olaf Holt (the University of Minnesota) had put TCFN on the Web. As TCFN was itself a new organization intent on being involved in the community, Fritchie and Holt offered TCFN as the host site for the MN E-Democracy 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 forward the disks to volunteers to code for the Web site. Another key innovation of Project organizers was the decision to create an e-mail– based public discussion forum, using listserv technology. Dennis Fazio, President of Minnesota Regional Network, a non-profit 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 to subscribe. Furthermore, anyone could send an e-mail message to all the individuals subscribed to MN-POLITICS by sending a message to “MN-POLITICS@MR.Net.” Mick Souder, an Internet educator and student at the University of Minnesota, agreed to be the list manager, meaning 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 site. He was able to do this using an application called Hypermail. This application posts exchanges in an e-mail–based listserv discussion to a Web site. As a result, all of the comments from participants in the discussion became available over the entire Internet through hypertext links. This created a globally accessible conversation about politics in Minnesota. The infrastructure for the project was in place and open to the public by late August, 1994, in time for the primaries in early September, when the major parties would choose their candidates. As a result of the contracts made at the campaign offices, position papers on a variety of subjects by candidates running for the United States Senate and Governor of Minnesota had been solicited and made available. 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:

History of Minnesota Electronic Democracy


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 [go to http://www.e-democracy. org/mn-politics/guide.html].

EARLY EXPOSURE 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. On September 1, the metropolitan daily, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, ran an article on the project in the Metro section, “State Politics Exploring Cyberspace.” The subheading of the Star Tribune piece indicated the angle of reporter Bob von Sternberg, “Fringe Parties, Political Junkies Beat Mainstream Candidates to Electronic Bulletin Boards.” Whereas 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 perhaps skeptical, 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.” TOWARD THE ELECTRONIC TOWN HALL Based on a press release distributed across the Internet by e-mail in early September, 1994, the potential of the project was clear. The effort possessed the features necessary to facilitate a new 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-Democracy 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 contracts created with candidates and the e-mail–based listserv 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.” Having become aware of the existence of the project on September 6, 1994, upon receiving a press release via another e-mail listserv forum, the author, realizing the potential of the project, decided to travel to Minnesota to conduct field research on the development of electronic democracy during the 1994 elections with particular interest in observing the development of MN-POLITICS. Methodologically, it is important to situate my activities beginning with the move to Minnesota in relation to the continuing



development of the project. This is particularly important as, over the course of the project, I became increasingly involved. 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 significant 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. 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 Policy Council, assisting in the design of state information services and the development of state policy. Although 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-Democracy Project possess tremendous potential, but organizers were eager for assistance. The history of the Internet and the early days of MN E-Democracy outlined thus far have described a variety of agents acting in society, designing technology and/or organizing systems that would be used in increasing numbers, leading to the design of new technology and/or the organization of systems. This process would lead to actors implementing previously designed technology and organizing the MN E-Democracy Project. In terms of the current discourse, the MN E-Democracy Project is like an uppermost layer of soil and rock covering one area of a massive edifice composed of many layers. Upon my arrival in Minnesota in September, I would become another agent acting on the edifice. For the sake of the present analysis, it is helpful to continue by offering two historical perspectives. The first is the history of the project apart from any overt consideration of my agency. The second is the history of the project in consideration of my agency. The reason that these two perspectives are helpful is that my activities had a major effect on the development of the project. Thus, the first history will offer a general overview of the development of the project. In the second, I isolate some of the decisions I made that influenced the project’s development. Between September 1 and October 18, the public forum became an established venue for public discourse about the political season in Minnesota. The combination of the e-mail listserv technology and the Hypermail archive proved to be a very effective unit of political machinery. The content of the archive will be examined in detail in later sections. The official history of the Project began on September 1, 1994, when Scott Fritchie created the archive. Although MN-POLITICS was created in early August, the messages from participants were not archived automatically until September 1. Because of the inconsistency of the archive early on, this period will be considered the prehistory of the project and will not receive detailed treatment. On October 19, an official announcement was made about the two political debates that would be hosted in MN-POLITICS on the Internet. The online debates were called electronic debates or E-debates. They occurred between October 23 and November 5. The first E-debate involved candidates running for Governor of Minnesota; the second involved candidates for the United States Senate. A separate e-mail listserv, MN-DEBATE, was created to provide a secure candidate-only platform for formal debate. Whereas MN-POLITICS was open subscription and open submission so 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 who permitted only submissions pertaining to administrative mat-

History of Minnesota Electronic Democracy


ters and submissions from candidates. Not only did this provide a secure platform for the candidates, but it allowed citizens the option of viewing the E-debates without themselves participating. Of course 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; and the second 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 question 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 opponent’s original response that afternoon. The candidates were required to send in responses and rebuttals to the second and third questions in like manner on Wednesday and Friday. From the time of my meeting with Steve Clift, I became an active volunteer, meeting other volunteers and working in Minneapolis. I was not always active in the subject of inquiry, MN-POLITICS, however. The general history of the project breaks down into two periods: the development of MN-POLITICS and the history of the E-debates. From my perspective, however, there were three qualitatively different periods. During the first period, from September 6 (when I joined the public forum) to September 27, I observed MN-POLITICS. I submitted only a couple of messages seeking to add value to the work of other organizers. During this period, as MN-POLITICS developed, it was possible to learn about the new technology apart from my input. During the second period, from September 28 to October 18, I became an active participant in MN-POLITICS. I entered my contributions to experiment with what I discerned to be the potential of the medium and the particular implementation of the medium. For this purpose, I created my own vehicle for communication within MNPOLITICS, a journal called Agora—The MN E-Democracy Chronicle. “Agora” refers to 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 townhall. 3. To explore the relationships between the new electronic medium and the traditional media. Agora aided the further development of the project into a new system of public opinion formation. The primary strategy was to increase the awareness of the presence of MN E-Democracy 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-Democracy 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 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 contrib-



ute to Agora. Eventually, Steve Clift and I agreed that it would be possible to organize the E-debates. Approximately four weeks before the election, I wrote a proposal for the E-debates that was simultaneously submitted to the candidates, the League of Women Voters of MN (who were asked to sponsor the debates), and the media [to see the proposal go to]. Once the proposal had been submitted to the relevant parties, efforts to publicize the E-debates on MN-POLITICS were undertaken through 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 cosponsor the project, and, one by one, the two major party candidates running for the United States Senate, as well as the candidates running for Governor, agreed to participate. During the third period, from October 19, I assumed the title of E-debate coordinator and was responsible for the design, organization, and coordination of the E-debates. During this time I was no longer an active participant in MN-POLITICS. Instead, I became responsible for the conduct of MN-DEBATE and the flow of information from MN-DEBATE into MN-POLITICS. Thus, I had removed myself from MN-POLITICS and could once again view myself as an observer. This time, however, I was observing an information system I had helped realize. CONFIGURING THE ELECTRONIC TOWN HALL There were countless decisions made before the E-debates ended. Each decision was necessarily influenced by both practical concerns and a notion of what democratic machinery required. First among the practical concerns was a calculation about what it would take to persuade the candidates to participate. For example, the primary goal leading into the E-debates was to involve the major candidates for the Senate race and the Governor’s race. In focusing on securing the participation of the four primary 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 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 may not have backed out of this venue because the campaign staffs realized that the venue was experimental and believed it unlikely to have a far reach into the population. Furthermore, the candidates were not required physically to type the responses and rebuttals to the questions themselves 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 to maximize the potential for discussion in the public forum. In fact, for the most part, the major candidates did not draft their own responses. The minor party candidates did and, as we shall see in a later section, this had significant repercussions in the forum and in the reports of journalists covering the forum for other media. Second among practical concerns was 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 running 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 MN-POLITICS would have time to discuss the E-debates and issues as they developed. Furthermore, the inclusion of the rebuttal feature was an

History of Minnesota Electronic Democracy


effort to highlight interactivity among the candidates—an encouragement to the candidates to learn how to use the interactivity feature of the technology. Some used this feature more effectively than others and therefore had an advantage in the forum. What is more important, in using the rebuttal feature effectively such individuals demonstrated how it can be a powerful 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 reflects 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. In MN-DEBATE, these respondents wanted someone to make certain the candidates answered the questions. In MN-POLITICS they wanted to impose some sort of editorial function on the many submissions. 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 was not moderated either. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that the technology makes it difficult. Another reason, already mentioned, is that I wanted to minimize my role in the development of the public forum once it was underway. For methodological reasons I was, therefore, careful to separate my perceptions of events in MN-POLITICS from my function as E-debate coordinator. Organizers did occasionally make suggestions to guide the forum along, however, by urging people to make contributions or setting limits on the number of posts once it became apparent certain individuals might well seek to monopolize the conversation. Finally, the original intention was to develop the questions used in the E-debates through consultation with participants in MN-POLITICS. Participants did not provide a substantive contribution at first. Perhaps they were skeptical about whether the debate would actually take place, as the candidates had not yet accepted invitations. I formulated most of the questions used in the E-debates by gleaning ideas from conversations in MN-POLITICS, in conversation with Steve Clift, and in consultation with the League of Woman Voters of Minnesota. Once it was clear the E-debates would take place, I again returned to MN-POLITICS to ask for suggestions. The second 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.

BEYOND 1994 Although MN E-Democracy has not yet been duplicated in every city in the nation and every country of the world, it has infiltrated the Twin Cities and its influence in affairs has expanded. It has matured and continued to be a stable sphere where an open public can freely interact. The stability of MN-POLITICS as an institution is clear from a look at the archive from its beginning to the 1996 election. As is evident in Table 1, there was a great burst of activity at the start of MN-POLITICS, reaching 548 messages during October. There was a decline after the 1994 electoral cycle, with a low of 28 messages in March 1995.


Table 1. Messages Received by Minnesota E-Democracy November 1996, 439 messages October 1996, 552 messages September 1996, 346 messages August 1996, 353 messages July 1996, 488 messages June 1996, 507 messages May 1996, 315 messages April 1996, 329 messages March 1996, 293 messages February 1996, 332 messages January 1996, 451 messages December 1995, 170 messages November 1995, 192 messages October 1995, 133 messages September 1995, 198 messages August 1995, 141 messages July 1995, 54 messages June 1995, 63 messages May 1995, 129 messages April 1995, 184 messages March 1995, 28 messages February 1995, 60 messages January 1995, 95 messages December 1994, 240 messages November 1994, 536 messages October 1994, 548 messages September 1994, 298 messages

However, activity increased again as the electoral cycle began anew. After the lows in 1995, when the future of MN E-Democracy was uncertain, there was a consistent pattern of between 300 and 500 messages each month. Furthermore, around the time of important activities, MN E-Democracy output increased. In January 1996, for example, during the presidential primaries, there were 451 messages; in June 1996, around the time of the DFL state convention, there were 507 messages; and during the run-up to the 1996 elections in month of October, a historical high watermark of 552 messages was reached. During this time leaders from the political arena, political activists, individuals in the media, and citizens participated in MN-POLITICS with a wide range of effects, large and small, in the community [3].

CONCLUSION The notion that underlying theoretical constructs influence the manner in which actor/s design a given technology or information system is relevant here [4]. The more specific notion that a vision of democratic theory underlies the formation of any given democracy project is significant as well [5]. From the ideas set out by Vannevar Bush [6] in The Atlantic Monthly after World War II to the development of the ARPANET and the spread of the technologies that would result in the Internet, there have been many actors working on the design and implementation of the new technology. In 1994 a further step was taken in applying the new technology to the political process. The MN E-Democracy Project was a part of this step.

History of Minnesota Electronic Democracy


1. Evan Schwartz, “Are You Ready For the Democracy Channel,” Wired (January 1994): 74–75. 2. Graeme Browning, Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Influence American Politics (Wilton, CT: Pemberton Press, 1996; Steven E. Miller, Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information Superhighway (New York: ACM Press, 1966); Ed Schwartz, Net Activism: How Citizens Use the Internet (Sebastopol, CA: Songline Studies, Inc., 1996). 3. Schwartz, Net Activism. 4. Wanda J, Orlikowski, “The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations,” Organizational Science 3, no. 3. (1992):398–427; Wanda J. Orlikowski and Jack J. Baroudi, “Studying Information Technology in Organizations: Research Approaches and Assumptions,” Information Systems Research 2, no. 1 (1991). 5. F. Christopher Arterton, Teledemocracy: Can Technology Save Democracy? (London: Sage Publications, 1987). 6. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, (July 1945):101–08. The article can be found in many different sources both print and online. For example, see Steve Lambert and Suzanne Ropiequet, CD-ROM, the New Papyrus: The Current and Future State of the Art (Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press, 1986) and Adele Goldberg, ed., A History of Personal Work-Stations (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1988). The article is also available on the Web. See the Vannevar Bush Symposium Homepage, [http://].