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Grass-Roots Politics With Click of a Mouse

In Silicon Valley, Tech-Driven Support Groups

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page A03

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not even 6 o'clock on a weeknight, but the club already is packed. In one corner, there's Peg, a fresh-faced elementary school principal who looks like she stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue. Greg and Mike, buddies who founded a snowboarding company, are in the middle of the room huddled over some beers. And Michelle, who works for a computer parts company, is leaning along the back wall, her blue toenails and matching glitter flip-flops sparkling in the dim light.

The scene in the converted warehouse is reminiscent of the dot-com days when the city's beautiful twenty- and thirtysomethings gathered regularly to schmooze over drinks. But this party isn't about venture capital, stock options and IPOs. It's about politics.

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The event is a fundraiser/pep rally of sorts for MoveOn.org, the Internet-based grass-roots group that has become famous for its harsh anti-Bush TV advertisements, the millions of dollars it has taken from Democratic billionaire George Soros and for being able to mobilize tens of thousands with a click of the keyboard.

As the election season reaches its peak, Silicon Valley is using its technical know-how and money to try to change politics in the same way it reinvented commerce -- by harnessing the Internet's ability to take advantage of and grow social networks from the bottom up.

The founders of dot-com hit HotOrNot, which allows users to rate strangers' looks on a scale of one to 10, last month launched the nonpartisan VoteOrNot, a voter registration site that is running a $100,000 sweepstakes to entice newcomers (contestants don't have to actually register to vote to be eligible). Slashdot, a Web site that bills itself as offering "news for nerds," for the first time has put together a politics section to encourage discussion of tech-tinged campaign issues. Bay Area Dems, "BAD," was founded on the dot-com philosophy of not dismissing even the smallest players because they may become the next new thing. Their meet-and-greets, which concentrate on small donors, have drawn some prominent politicians.

Political consultants have spent countless hours pondering, dissecting and analyzing strategies to capture younger voters but for these organizations the secret is obvious. It's about making politics cool. The 2000 election marked one of the most dismal turnouts by young voters ages 18 to 29, but studies released over the past few months by the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center and MTV suggest a different trend this year. The young are projected to come out in unusually large numbers -- enough to swing a close election, though that's no certainty. In the last election, polls show that young voters were split down the middle in their support of Republicans and Democrats.

In many parts of the country, house parties, rock concerts and other social events sponsored by techie political groups are becoming the place for the young and hip to mix and mingle and -- oh yes -- support their political causes. Besides, as the MoveOn invitation noted, the party was a "fine way to meet cute guys and girls of your political persuasion."

Only a handful of the more than 150 people at the MoveOn party consider themselves activists. The rest are political neophytes. They paid a $25 cover charge at the door that will go to support MoveOn's efforts in swing states. By the end of the night, the organization had raised more than $3,000.

For some of the Democratic-minded at the MoveOn party, it's easy to articulate why they came. A founder of an environmental group says he's concerned about what he says is the current administration's lack of interest in doing anything about global warming. A doctor is upset that the president balked on a world health initiative that would have urged people to cut down on sugar intake.

A great many are upset about the war in Iraq. It is young men and women their age who comprise the bulk of the soldiers fighting there, they say.

Others have a harder time explaining why they are here.

Greg Kronko, 30, who travels often, said he's found that many of his friends from other countries have become hostile against Americans because of U.S. foreign policy. He said when he heard about MoveOn from a friend he got "a feeling" that supporting the organization was the right thing to do. Evan Combs, a 24-year-old paralegal, said that for the first time this year he has been actively following the campaign and donating money, some $50, to the Democratic campaign.

"It's been thrown around that this is the most important election of our time," Combs said. "You feel like it's really important to get involved."

Back in 2000, when the last presidential election took place, dot-com mania was in full swing and the worlds of Washington and Silicon Valley intersected like never before. The courtship then was mostly about money. The high-tech millionaires had it. The politicians wanted it. Today the relationship is more difficult to define. Many former techies, armed with the same gung-ho, change-the-world attitude they had several years ago, are coming up with creative experiments to try to improve on the political process.

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