Autumn Labbe-Renault
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Terry  Grunwald
Cary Williams
Lauren-Glenn Davitian
Seongcheol Kim
Dirk Koning
Sue Buske
Autumn Labbe-Renault
Pierre Clark
Fred I. Williams
Kara Harris

Electronic Democracy, Davis Style  

Autumn Labbe-Renault is assistant director of Davis Community Television and a member of Davis Community Network's board of directors. She has co-produced DCTV/DCN's joint election coverage since 1996 and writes regularly about community media issues for local and national media.

Autumn Labbe-Renault

Recipe for electronic democracy: Take one public access television station. Fold in a community computer network and mix well. Add a dash of local politicians, generous amounts of on-line information and citizen input, hundreds of volunteer hours, and one election. Serve hot.

In 1996, Davis Community Television (DCTV) and Davis Community Network (DCN) joined forces to provide a full slate of voter information programming and resources during the local election season. At the time, this effort was at the vanguard of such networking efforts nationwide. Three years and five elections later, the partnership remains strong and is a recognized and remarkable contribution to community life in Davis.

DCTV had long produced a live, election night program. Davis is located just outside a major media market (Sacramento), and is largely ignored by the TV stations there. Without us, there would be no television coverage of local races. By partnering with DCN to provide on-line forums and "up-to-the-minute coverage," we were able to greatly enhance the opportunities for citizen participation in the electoral process, in a manner that was informative, entertaining and interactive.

In the weeks leading up to the election -- which among other things, featured a hotly contested race for City Council -- DCTV produced "Meet the Candidates" forums, aired forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters and other community-based organizations, and prepared for live, election night coverage.

With DCN, we asked community members what questions they wanted the City Council candidates to answer. People were invited to propose their questions in a number of ways: via phone, fax or mail; via email to DCN; on-camera during DCTV's "Street Talk" interviews; or as part of the local newspaper's "Man-in-the-Street" column. From the approximately 100 responses we received, a panel of DCTV and DCN volunteers culled four questions -- tough ones that weren't being asked via other conduits, such as candidates' forums. These questions were then posed to candidates during DCTV's "Meet the Candidates" segments.

DCN also offered interactive on-line forums about campaign-related issues, and posted financial disclosure information for all candidates in local races as well. Traffic on these particular pages was significant, and has remained so during successive election seasons.

On election night itself, DCTV went live at 8 p.m. with two anchor hosts, and a program that included roundtable discussions by Davis' former mayors, interviews with candidates, campaign managers, previously recorded interviews, and more. New this year was the on-set addition of DCN's Web Team Chair, Steve McMahon.

DCTV and DCN had heavily promoted that ours would be the most "up-to-the-minute" results available to Davis residents. McMahon's on-set computer was keyed into DCTV's system, so that the director could easily cut to what was on screen. He had already bookmarked and familiarized himself with the election results pages for both the County Clerk's and the Secretary of State's office. We also had a DCN volunteer on hand at the County Clerk's office, just in case technology failed us and we had to acquire results the "old-fashioned" way -- via phone.

Technology did not fail us, but at some point, the Secretary of State's site went down, and DCTV and DCN's results reporting became the only one available for a period of about 90 minutes. Their glitch really helped us tout our ability to provide up-to-the-minute returns. We knew we were successful when The Sacramento Bee's political editor called us to find out how Davis residents were voting in the Third Congressional District race!

Through the years, our two organizations have experienced our share of successes and frustrations with each election season. We've also encountered policy issues en route. Most recently, DCN has had to concern itself with its emergence as a publisher by virtue of its role in providing election finance information and moderating public, on-line forums.

"DCN is an evolving organization," said its Executive Director, Richard Lowenberg. "When we first provided a web server and allowed customers to publish via their subscriber accounts, DCN was developing infrastructure. The theory was "if you build it [infrastructure], they will come." But when DCN obtains, organizes and serves election finance information, or when we open public forums, we are a publisher.

"This change in role is not accidental, but it has forced us to consider the ethical and legal obligations of a publisher -- such as avoiding libel and developing policies that protect the organization and community from the damage caused by libel," he said. Lowenberg added that DCN's board is learning from precedent set in such cases as Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy that "when DCN opens public forums, we must largely keep our hands off or make it very clear what editorial responsibility we are taking."

Kari Peterson -- DCTV's executive director and a driving force behind forging DCTV and DCN’s election partnership -- adds that "these concerns aside, I believe that providing this kind of information and facilitating this kind of interaction is invaluable.

"Community media reaches its potential when serving the public's compelling need to know about the candidates they'll be voting for, the ones that will shape our collective civic future," Peterson said. "DCTV and DCN can do what no one else can -- bring election results home to Davis."

Our next local election is March 2000, and the "cooks" are already at work brewing up plans for another batch of electronic democracy, Davis style.