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Using ICTs in election campaigns

04 October, 2006
By Peter Chen

With Victoria's state election less than two months away, Victorian e-democracy expert Peter Chen, along with Rachel Gibson and Karin Geiselhart, looks at the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) in election campaigns.

The uptake of ICTs by political parties and sitting MPs has been dramatic over recent years. However, even for the major political parties - which have access to considerable resources to fight election campaigns from public and private financing and electoral office allocations - it must be recognised that the use of ICTs in electoral campaigns in Australia has been very modest over the past ten years.

Thus, while the major parties initially saw the internet as a low-cost communication tool and a way to ensure visibility as modern, technologically-sophisticated political organisations, the disappointing use of these sites by the public has reduced party interest in web-based information over the past ten years.

A good indication of this shift has been:

Use of ICTs in the campaigning process

This shift in focus is not surprising, nor does it present any particular positive or negative democratic impacts upon the status quo. Overall, the tendency for the major parties to focus on mainstream mass media, either through public relations or via paid advertising, reflects the difference between new and old media forms: namely that new media tend to be "pull media" which require the audience to actively seek out information, whereas broadcast media are a form of "push media", able to deliver campaign messages broadly and to a large proportion of the population.

"Pull" media has limited value in reaching undecided and disinterested voters who are conventionally seen by parties as being core to electoral success, due to their lower levels of party identification and therefore higher tendency to "swing". Party websites, therefore, tend to be mainly provided for the party faithful, or as sources of press releases and contact information for mainstream journalists.

In addition, where "push" elements of new media such as e-mail or instant messaging are available, parties have been cautious in using these channels extensively, due to both strong community distaste for "spam" and also limitations in developing the types of extensive coverage available from broadcast media and the lack of individual contact information available for online communications, such as limited numbers of valid e-mail addresses stored in party databases.

The one significant exception to this general rule has been the use of recorded "advocacy calls", or automated telephone dialling systems, by the Liberal Party in the 2004 federal election campaign to target some electorates with mass telephone messages. While the Liberals claimed this approach was effective, its utility is difficult to assess. The party has said it will be reused in the future. It is one emerging area of political campaigning that will deserve additional attention.

This is not simply because of its possible utility in mobilising voter support but also because of the tendency for this high-cost communications method to be dominated by the entrenched major parties.

Overall, political parties and candidates tend to use ICTs in a limited number of ways:

It should be noted that the Victorian Electoral Commission has historically published candidate statements online for local government elections, where the ballot was being conducted by electronic mail. This practice was discontinued in 2004 following legal advice received by the organisation. It appears, at the point of writing, that the State government will introduce new legislation to ensure the practice is reinstated and possibly expanded to all local government elections, and even State government elections as well.

The democratic impact of this is hard to measure but in the contested space of local government elections the online publication of these statements will provide greater exposure for the candidates to electors and the media.

Levelling the playing field?

An important democratic question is the extent to which ICTs lower the barriers to participation in the political process by groups outside the major political parties. As with alternative and community media online, we can hypothesise that the low barriers to participation in online publishing should have beneficial outcomes in terms of democratic competition. Yet as indicated, the low level of public interest in partisan websites tends to undermine this hypothesis and any attempt to compare mainstream and non-mainstream political actors’ use of new media may lead to deceptive conclusions.

This finding is problematic, however, in terms of a descriptive presentation of the respective communications tools used by political candidates. It reflects:

The finding, therefore, does not necessarily indicate a negative view of the health of the Australian democratic system overall. The lower use of ICTs by minor parties reflects, but does not significantly feed into, the ongoing disparity of access to media and public campaign funds that minor parties have faced for decades.

Given this more general exclusion from the mainstream media during elections, it is not surprising that minor parties like the Australian Greens and the Democrats are far more likely to:

This last point reflects the relatively low cost of online content production compared with the extraordinarily high costs of purchasing commercial airtime during an election. This point is not related to ICTs specifically, being more symptomatic of a deeper cause.

On the positive side this means that ICTs have fostered a new channel by which these parties can communicate with the public. They cut through a mass media environment that tends to be saturated with mainstream parties and personalities during the campaign. This includes both the amount of media coverage afforded as journalism or the massive advertising spending of the major parties.

Internal use of ICTs in electoral competition

However, we also need to note that the use of ICTs as a public, visible communication channel is only part of their value to the democratic process. The major parties' significant electoral advantage lies not only with the largesse they can bring to bear for advertising expenditure, but also in their networked electoral database systems.

Party funding supports these systems and local members' staffers continually add to them. They provide a significant electoral advantage through the ability to:

The resources of the minor parties are insufficient to match that of the major parties, particularly for the "invisible" political activities of target marketing and the market analysis and segmentation process.

The major parties have a significantly higher use of their electoral database system than the minor parties. The use of these systems is essential to maintaining and updating information. The high rate of use by the major parties means that not only do they gain strategic advantage in an election but by continuously updating and capturing new information they are also better placed in subsequent elections.

While this analysis could lead to a relatively cynical view of the capacity of the major parties to dominate the communications landscape, it should be recognised that the majors still have a considerable way to go in developing online communications channels to support their candidates. Most of the ALP or Liberal candidates' websites in the 2004 election displayed certain sameness with regards to core messages and policy information, reflecting the tendency towards centrally-managed campaigning with tight information management and release processes. However, the fact that candidate websites existed at all is relatively surprising in the age of professional campaigning.

The freedom that individual candidates enjoyed developing their own websites, the information they placed on these sites, and the wide variety of styles and designs demonstrate that this remains an area of mainstream parties that has evaded the grasp of the campaign management "machine men". Candidates commonly received little in the way of easy-to-use templates for the production of brochures in the 2004 campaign and individual candidates often received little in the way of electronic resources to support their campaign operations.

One future direction for campaign ICTs is likely to be the greater use of "controlled layout and design" techniques to ensure that individual candidates’ brochures and websites share consistent branding and not just consistent messages. This will invariably have two impacts on future elections:

The extent that the last outcome will occur will depend on the internal organisation and structure of the individual parties and the relative freedom of action of individual candidates. In parties like the ALP with strict enforcement of discipline through the formalised faction system, people can expect higher levels of content management.

Conclusion

Overall, the role of ICTs in recent electoral campaigns and their impact on the quality of Australia’s democratic system remains mixed. The response of political parties to the development of new forms of communication with voters has been quite conservative. The differential take-up of computer technologies in the campaigning process reflects to a large extent the existing bias in the Australian party competition. It is possible to conclude that the uptake of ICTs by Australia's existing political parties has had no significant implications for Australian democracy, either positive or negative.

This is an edited article taken from Electronic Democracy? The Impact of New Communications Technologies on Australian Democracy by Peter Chen, Rachel Gibson and Karin Geiselhart for the Democratic Audit of Australia.

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