An article in the Nov. 3 Southern Maryland Extra incorrectly stated that Reginald Kearney, who was a candidate for Charles County commissioner, did not have a campaign Web site. Kearney's site was at www.kearney2002.com. (Published 11/10/02)
For politicians, having to explain their position on an important issue in two minutes at a campaign forum or in 100 words on a candidate questionnaire can be a rhetorical challenge.
Boiling their views down to a few sentences, candidates fear, can make their thinking seem shallow or, even worse, leave out some nuance and cause a voter to turn elsewhere.
Calvert County commissioner candidate Susan Shaw said she often left political forums this fall feeling frustrated: With only minutes to answer complex questions and her brain flooded with information, she felt she had inadequate time to demonstrate depth.
Not so on candidates' Web sites, such as Shaw's, www.imchoosingsusan.com. There, the Republican candidate has provided detailed accounts of her visions for transportation, growth and low taxes, all available to citizens since February with the simple click of a mouse.
"It allows me to do more than sound bites," Shaw said. "The one media that reaches over 80 percent of the population in Calvert County is the Internet. It's the most comprehensive means."
The Internet's growing appeal and unlimited space prompted about a third of candidates in Southern Maryland to set up campaign Web sites this election season. The depth and design of these sites vary, but many have used the tool to inform voters, publicize their platforms and even collect campaign contributions.
Candidates say voters have responded enthusiastically to their online efforts and argue that those who forgo online campaigning are missing out.
"It's definitely a medium you can't ignore anymore," said Kimberly Bean, a Waldorf Web site designer who created a campaign site for Sally Jameson, a Democratic candidate for state delegate from Charles County.
There is not much of a pattern to who set up sites and who did not. Of the nine campaign sites in Calvert, six are for county commissioner candidates. In Charles, only the two commissioner candidates competing for the open District 2 seat have Web sites. Instead, candidates for state delegate and the Board of Education have the majority of the county's 16 campaign sites.
Six of 13 St. Mary's sites feature candidates in the contentious county commissioner races there. In all three counties, most candidates for sheriff and state's attorney ventured into cyberspace.
Non-incumbents have pursued a virtual presence more aggressively, operating two-thirds of the 38 candidate sites for local races. This disparity of sites among local incumbents mirrors a national trend; according to a study by the nonpartisan Bivings Group, only 29 percent of congressional incumbents have campaign Web sites.
Incumbents have the advantage of familiarity from their time in public office, but challengers said the Internet has boosted their exposure, particularly among constituents who do not attend meetings or public forums.
"It's a great tool for people to be able to learn about you and your candidacy on their own time," Jameson said. "It's convenient for them."
Candidates report increased traffic on their sites as Election Day draws nearer. St. Mary's commissioner candidate Bob Lewis, who designed his own site, said it had about 30 "hits" a day in September. The Green Party candidate now gets more than 100 hits a day from interested voters, he said.
Another online effort to inform voters also has drawn increased but not universal participation. DemocracyNet, a Web site run by the League of Women Voters at www.democracynet.org, received responses on a range of topics including budget and public transit issues from many commissioner candidates in Calvert and St. Mary's counties. The group does not have a local branch in Charles County.
Since 1998, the League has aimed to give voters in Southern Maryland the chance to use the site to compare and contrast candidates, said Lu Pierson, who coordinates coverage of Maryland races. It is designed to provide an interactive forum for candidates, but "we have not had as much candidate response as we would have liked," she said.
Indeed, not all local candidates have been convinced that an Internet presence is necessary. The expense of building and launching a site usually is not a deterrent -- Lewis estimates a site can be created for as little as $250, and range as high as $2,500.
But candidates either have to know how to build a site or hire a company to do it for them. Though several local companies specialize in Web design, some office seekers said they did not have time to track down the expertise.
"I'm very busy doing a bunch of things," said Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf), who didn't make a Web site part of his communication strategy. Neither did Reginald Kearney, his Democratic opponent in District 3 in Charles County. Smith added, "I would think my actions speak louder than any words I could put out there."
St. Mary's commissioner candidate Joe Gass (R) disagrees. He said campaign Web sites have forced participating candidates to put their thoughts in writing and be more accessible to voters. Interested residents can easily e-mail candidates with questions or concerns through the sites, opening up a valuable avenue for dialogue, he said.
Voters are not the only beneficiaries of this modern exchange. Several candidates' sites provide secure transmission for online donations. Though no one locally has matched Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) feat of raising $1 million in 48 hours through his presidential campaign Web site, Southern Maryland campaigners said contributions sent by the click of a credit card number keep trickling in.
"It's nice to get to the office in the morning to see an e-mail that says you've gotten another donation," Gass said.