Lawmakers adapt to Internet

Lawmakers adapt to Internet

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Internet modernity is brewing - albeit slowly - inside the North Dakota state Capitol, and it's something that might change the way lawmakers communicate with folks around the state.

This upcoming session marks the first time that every legislator will have a laptop - some of the holdouts who avoided the computers in past sessions did not return for another - and talks of a possible test program to issue lawmakers BlackBerry smart phones has ("at best") a 50-50 chance of seeing the light of day, according to House Leader Al Carlson of Fargo.

But one of the most tech-savvy improvements coming to the North Dakota Legislature is from Sen. Tom Seymour, a Minot Democrat, who said he will use the Web site Twitter to tell people what's going on in the state Capitol throughout the session.

Haven't heard of Twitter yet? It's a Web site that lets users electronically publish their every move in the form of 140-character posts, akin to a Facebook update. At the same time, anyone with a Twitter account can message Seymour through the social network.

Seymour said he and John Girard of Minot State University got the idea to twitter after they encouraged all the freshmen at the university to join the social networking site Facebook in order to communicate with each other.

"Then it came to the political arena and how can you get your constituents involved?" said Seymour, who teaches at Minot State.

Twittering isn't new to politics. President-elect Barack Obama's campaign team twittered throughout the 2008 election. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, for example, sends Twitter messages from his BlackBerry - even from the House floor, to the chagrin of House Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Seymour said he wants to see lawmakers adapt more Web tools, such as instant messaging and Facebook, to communicate with each other and constituents.

Many state officials already have accounts on Facebook and MySpace. During committee meetings, for example, it isn't difficult to spot a few lawmakers checking their Facebook profiles.

Still, the value of shaking hands and hitting the road hasn't changed, despite the Internet, University of North Dakota political science director Mark Jendrysik said.

"I think it's just another tool in the toolbox of politicians," he said of Web sites such as Twitter. "All of these things are just different ways to reach voters."

But after the 2008 presidential election, Jendrysik said politicians should learn to adapt to online communication, especially if they want to reach younger voters, who have largely strayed from newspapers and television news.

"I think successful politicians in the future will have to employ all these means," he said.

The big picture suggests that technology is changing the way government operates. After all, Obama could become the first president in history with a laptop in the Oval Office, according to press reports.

The question is, how will these new interactive online features find their way into North Dakota politics?

Seymour said he wonders if the day will ever come when Legislature meets in a virtual world, rather than meeting in Bismarck. Regardless, he sees the communication landscape as a changing one.

"This thing has been a slow transition from the phone," Seymour said. "People used to call each other during the session; now they hardly call each other, except for some of the older guys and girls."

(Reach reporter Brian Duggan at 223-8482 or brian.duggan@bismarcktribune.com. Read his blog at www.bismarcktribune.com/blog/?wnodakcentral.)

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