I, Publius 

Before the polls close this Tuesday, Michigan voters have a valuable resource at their fingertips. It’s called Publius.org. On it, one can find out not only if you’re eligible to vote, but also where to vote, what issues are on the ballot and what stances the candidates hold on important issues.

It all started in November 1996 when Detroiter Vince Keenan, then a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, couldn’t find where he was supposed to vote. He later only discovered basic information about the elections as he waited in line to vote — from the League of Women Voters.

“If you’re standing on a street corner, you should know what ward it’s in and what district it’s in,” says Keenan, a former philosophy major. “The answers to the questions seemed like they should be obvious.”

Jamie Kaye Walters is a special projects producer for Channel 4 and helps run the site. She says it is user-friendly to Michigan media, not just the public. “It is the easiest voter-education tool — it makes the most sense,” she says.

So user-friendly, in fact, that it received 1.36 million hits in 2004 alone.

The State Bureau of Elections has an agreement in which it shares data with Publius.org, Keenan says.

“Publius” refers to the pen name used by John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, which were drafted to drum up public support for the U.S. Constitution in the late 1780s.

Just like television and radio before it, Web sites like Publius.org are yet another reflection of how politics has merged with media, says Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

“It’s the equivalent of a public service announcement,” he says. “Whether or not these Web sites are effective remains to be seen. The jury’s still out.”

Hutchings acknowledges that Publius.org and other Web sites like it can see a lot of traffic. However, he says, most of those who visit the site are already registered voters.

This means that those disenfranchised from the political process for a variety of reasons — such as poverty — will not be logging on anytime soon. “For the most part they are enhancing the opportunities for people who are likely to seek registration,” he says. “They are not going to be your average unregistered Americans.”

This doesn’t faze Keenan. He currently has one full-time employee, two part-timers and five volunteers “cajoling” candidates every day for their campaign information. “It can be very valuable,” he says.

In the future, Keenan plans to post video images on the site to illustrate how to operate different polling machines.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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