The US presidential election, which is now less than a week away, is the first where the internet has played a significant role. And with a general election in the UK likely to take place some time next year, many local observers see the US race as a possible dry run for events closer to home.
Perhaps the most controversial phenomenon to emerge in the US play-off so far is vote-auction.com, a website that appears to trade votes for cash.
The original site, which was named voteauction.com before the US courts forced it to close down, was set up by a political science student James Baumgartner as part of a postgraduate research project. His aim was also to parody the way political parties 'buy' peoples votes at elections.
After the court case, however, the website was bought by an Austrian businessman, Hans Bernhard. But it is currently unclear whether Bernhard is a real businessman or whether the offers posted on the site in exchange for votes are legitimate.
The State of Illinois seems to have no doubts as to its commercial nature though, with reports suggesting that it has already informed the Austrian Embassy about Bernhard's alleged illegal activities.
According to Pete Morey, Parliamentary and Policy Officer of the Electoral Reform Society, vote buying would be equally as illegal in the UK as it is in the US, however.
"I think it was the Representation of the People Act in 1983 which would have made it illegal. Obviously at the moment, organisations do fund political parties and one can question what those politicians get back in return," he said.
"But the new Political Party Referendum Election Bill has laid out new regulations to tighten up party funding. I think it's well and good. Donating money to a political party is a different issue to 'cash for questions', which relates to individual politicians," he adds.
But even if someone was to set up a vote buying site, Morey explains, the only way buyers could guarantee getting their money's worth would be to use a postal ballot.
Toby Young, editor of the online edition of political magazine The Spectator, argues that the idea of vote buying in elections isn't restricted to how much candidates or parties spend on their campaigns or even to internet sites
"Political parties to a certain extent buy people's votes by proposing to cut taxes. In the 19th century, one of the ways of eliminating 'rotten boroughs' was through making it illegal to buy votes. It was actually quite unpopular because in constituencies themselves, the people whose votes were bought were obviously delighted to be paid for their votes. They were given free beer and food for voting," he claimed.
While online voting auctions in the UK may seem an unlikely proposition, what does appear more probable is the importation of vote-trading practices. This idea has been promoted by supporters of US Green candidate Ralph Nader on sites such as NaderTrader.org and VoteSwap2000.
Some Nader supporters see themselves on the horns of a dilemma and are using the internet as a way to try to resolve it.
Nader needs to get five per cent of the total vote to receive matching Federal Government campaign funds if he wants to run again in future. But supporters realise that a vote for Nader may end up being a vote for Republican candidate George W Bush because it appears to be taking votes away from Democrat Vice-President Al Gore.
Gore, for one thing, is more eco-friendly, so some Nader supporters are now offering to vote for Gore in those states where the presidential race is a close one between him and Bush.
Gore supporters, in return, would then vote for Nader in states where Bush is the obvious winner such as in his home state of Texas. The aim is to match up votes and swap them online.
Although there was similar evidence of some tactical voting at the last UK general election, Young doesn't feel that the internet will have much impact next time round.
"I think tactical voting is still a concept, which is beyond the grasp of most members of the British electorate. They can barely steel themselves to vote even when they live in a marginal constituency and there is a strong chance their first choice candidate won't be elected. The idea that they will steel themselves to vote tactically is wishful thinking," he claimed.
But others believe that the internet will have a role to play. Derek Draper, who was the assistant to Labour spin guru Peter Mandelson at the last election and who now runs his own advertising agency, The Farm, thinks the web will come into its own here.
"The use of the web to finesse and focus tactical voting is very interesting. There is no reason why the models being developed in America could not be applied here. Someone who wanted to vote LibDem somewhere could make sure that somebody else voted Labour somewhere else. I can see it being very popular," he said.
"Particularly because if you were to look at the psychographics of internet users, I think you would probably find that they would be less party-aligned than most voters. Especially the younger section rather than the 'silver surfers'. I think the younger surfers would be open to tactical voting, especially if they could do it in a way that was interesting and reliable. I can see it being part of our election," he added.
But it's not just internet watchers who will be looking at the US situation. Political parties are also likely to keep a close eye on how their counterparts over the pond have used the net as a campaign tool.
As Morey says: "The interesting thing will be to see just how much parties actually market themselves through internet activity, through the use of their websites and through email contact. Whether we are going to start seeing parties getting their members to email around messages to people in their own address books. That's definitely a possibility. We'll see much more marketing done through the internet."
So it would appear that the web could open up possibilities such as targeted marketing that simply weren't available before. And it could have a significant role to play in the forthcoming UK election which, barring unforeseen circumstances, most observers argue is likely to return a Labour government to power.
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