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Grass-Roots Politics With Click of a Mouse

Northern California natives James Hong, 31, and Jim Young, 31, said they were inspired to create the nonpartisan VoteOrNot site after they read James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds," which theorizes that a group of people is wiser than an elite few. The pair reasoned that the more people get out and vote, the more diverse the pool will be and the greater the chance that America will get "the correct answer" when it elects a president, Hong said.

His newest site is based on the notion that registration efforts will be more effective if friends rather than strangers on billboards or on TV ads remind people to vote. He said he himself got Young to register.

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"It's not that we are apathetic. It's that we're lazy," Hong said about younger voters.

They used $200,000 of earnings from HotOrNot site, which has become a successful online dating site for people in the 18 to 24 age range, to fund the sweepstakes. One person will win $100,000 and the friend who referred him or her to the site will get the other $100,000. Since the site went up over Labor Day weekend, more than 100,000 people have signed up. Members are directed to another site to register to vote.

Slashdot creator and president Rob Malda, 28, said readers of the tech news Web site, roughly 500,000 a day, many of them 22- to 28-year-old men, have long requested a politics section. Topics vary from the serious to the whimsical. One day readers debated the state of civil liberties; another, a study that shows a correlation between the outcome of Washington Redskins games and the fate of the presidential election.

"People often think that Slashdot tends to be liberal or libertarian, but I'm continuously surprised that we have people with all opinions," said Malda, adding that he personally voted "not Bush" during the last election and will vote "not Bush" this election.

The Bay Area Dems formed early this year in an effort to change a democratic process they regard as "increasingly elitist," according to Andy Rappaport, a venture capitalist who is on the board of directors for the organization. The group, has attracted 2,000 to its events, hopes to get younger and less wealthy citizens involved. Their monthly mixers, for which participants are asked to donate as little as $75 to attend, have attracted the likes of House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

"Unlike other organizations where the goal of activities is to take money . . . our goal has been to give people opportunities to participate directly in the democratic process," said Wade Randlett, chief executive of Dashboard Technology, a Web products firm in San Francisco.

MoveOn is by far the largest political group to emerge from Northern California's tech scene. Founded in 1998, it is the brainchild of Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, software entrepreneurs who invented a screen saver featuring a flying toaster that mesmerized early Microsoft Windows users. MoveOn now claims more than 2.8 million members, up from 1.7 in January. With only a handful of paid staffers, the Berkeley-based organization depends on a diverse group of volunteers who stay in touch through the Internet.

For years it focused on mobilizing people online. There were electronic petitions, coordinated e-mail mailings and webcasts. This campaign season, MoveOn has concentrated on organizing real-world social events -- rock concert benefits, candlelight vigils for the fallen troops in Iraq, and parties at thousands of homes to watch Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." MoveOn staffers have been able to put together the events simply by e-mailing volunteers of a date and theme and allowing them to organize themselves.

The warehouse party was one of these get-togethers. Held in the trendy South of Market area, the playground of the dot-commers in 1999, it was convened on the night of the presidential debate in Florida. It was the second such event organized by David Hothschild and Adam Browning, both 33, who work at a nonprofit that promotes solar energy, and some of their friends. Earlier last month, they had hosted a happy hour get-together at 111 Minna, a gallery/bar/nightclub. They previewed MoveOn's newest ads and held an auction to raise money for the organization. Among the items up for bidding were CDs, DVDs, a palm reading, a guided kayak tour, a date with a young and single male MoveOn staffer, and lots of soup. The young woman who donated the soup said she didn't have much money but wanted to help; she offered to bring over a freshly made pot once a month for the next three months. The group raised $8,000 that night.

"These events are for people who don't track politics as a sport on a day-to-day level but are really concerned about the direction of the country right now and want to do something about it," Browning said.

Hothschild's and Browning's second party was more about socializing than fundraising. Organizers hand out name tags that said things like "Hello my name is . . ." or "One reason for voting Bush out of office is . . ."

During the debate, some sat quietly at the tables, eating pizza, drinking beers and cosmopolitans, while others cheered and jeered at various comments. After it ended, the crowd broke into smaller cliques like a regular night at the bar. The conversations shifted quickly: the movie "Hero," regional housing prices, dating woes, the upcoming ski season. It wasn't long before the topic turned back to Silicon Valley investing.

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