New Web Sites Focus on Empowering Voters

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If you have something to say about this year's U.S. presidential campaign, new Web site is inviting you to speak up, and giving away US$1,000 prizes in the process., which formally launched this week, announced a contest for regular people to make 30-second campaign commercials for both major party candidates, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama. The makers of the top Obama commercial and the top McCain commercial will each win $1,000, and You2Gov plans to submit the top commercials to advertising agencies.

The goal of You2Gov is to give ordinary citizens a voice in the U.S. political system, said Alan Silberberg, the site's cofounder and CEO.

Many political Web sites focus on specific issues or advocate specific positions, but there aren't many that serve as a general gathering place for people to meet and work together on issues they care about, said Silberberg, a former White House staffer for former President Bill Clinton. It's also difficult to find a lot of government information, such as how to contact lawmakers, on one site, he said.

A lot of advocacy sites "basically make their individual members like a lobbyist," Silberberg said. "We decided to do the same thing for citizens."

You2Gov is one of two recently launched Web sites trying to empower U.S. residents in the political arena. Sunshine Review, formally launched in mid-July by free-market think tank the Sam Adams Alliance, is taking a different approach -- it's a wiki-style site focused on putting state and local government information online.

At You2Gov, Silberberg wants to give average people the power to have their voice heard in the political process, even though the average person doesn't have the money of large lobbying organizations.

"The technology is there now to allow people to be connected and to be heard in ways that have never been done before," he said. "What we're trying to do is use the power of technology to basically leverage people's personal political power and make it that much stronger. We're not doing it from a party perspective, we're doing it from a people perspective."

You2Gov had the idea for making campaign videos before this week's dust-up between McCain and actress/heiress Paris Hilton. McCain ran a television ad describing Obama as the world's biggest celebrity, while showing pictures of Hilton and singer Britney Spears. Hilton struck back with her own video calling McCain, "that wrinkly, white-haired guy" and proposing an energy policy that may make more sense than either McCain's or Obama's. [Warning: Hilton's ad may not be appropriate to view at work.]

"We had been thinking of this as a way to connect people to their politics in a normal way," Silberberg said. "Everybody's got a video camera now. We just figured, 'be your own campaign strategist.' If you're sitting back on the couch ... what would you want to see on television?"

You2Gov has been talking with some large ad agencies about running the winning commercials. "I think we're going to see some excellent content. I think we're going see some commercials that maybe some of the major ad companies will say, 'hey, we could've done that.'"

Silberberg said he won't take off points for videos featuring a leapard-patterned swimsuit, like Hilton's does. "If that's what people want to do, I'm not going to discourage it," he said. You2Gov will screen out porn, however. The deadline to submit ads is Sept. 30.

Over at Sunshine Review, organizers are hoping to allow voters to track the dealings of local and state governments, said John Tsarpalas, president of the Sam Adams Alliance. In many cases, state and local governments have been slow to get official documents online, he said.

Government bodies should have their budgets online, their meeting minutes and all contracts worth more than $10,000, Tsarpalas said. Sunshine Review has published a transparency checklist for state and local governments.

"We're trying to make it easier for everybody to have more information," Tsarpalas said.

As of its formal launch in mid-July, Sunshine Review had about 100 contributors, and Tsarpalas is hoping for more. As of Friday, the site had information on several government agencies, including ones in Kansas, Texas, Vermont and Illinois. Another wiki-style site sponsored by the Sam Adams Alliance, the year-old Ballotpedia, got over 1 million page views in July.

Sunshine View welcomes contributors of all political stripes.

"We have a lot of faith in the public," Tsarpalas said. "We saw that there was a real information gap when it came to transparency, and we just thought we needed to fill that information gap. We have a vested interest in how the government is spending our money -- I don't care what your viewpoint is."

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