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Companies Opt To Sign Up Voters

October 6, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Like a belle at the ball, high-tech entrepreneur Michael Chasen was wined and dined by suitors at the Democratic National Convention in hopes he’d open his considerable wallet.

Ready to invest in politics, Chasen confounded Democrats’ best-laid plans when he decided not to give a check to the party, and instead used his money to help fill voting booths.

With pizza, M&Ms and an Internet link to download forms, Chasen’s company, Blackboard, spent three days registering its 240 employees to vote. It plans to give them time off on Election Day and will even pay their costs for getting to the polls.

With a $20 million company full of Internet-savvy 20-somethings _ an age group that traditionally has stayed home on Election Day _ Chasen figured the effort would make a more lasting impact than a political check to the parties.

``The one thing we have here is people,″ Chasen said. ``At the very least, Blackboard can make the time to help them register and vote.″

All across the country, companies, interest groups and political parties are organizing voter drives to get as many people to the polls as possible in what is shaping up to be the closest race for control of the White House and Congress in many years.

Several AFL-CIO leaders and the Rev. Jesse Jackson plan a series of bus trips in such battleground states as Ohio, Missouri and Michigan to urge union members to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. The NAACP’s new National Voter Fund has registered 21,000 voters and has a $9 million budget to target black voters in 12 key states. People for the American Way has a Web site targeted to young voters, giving them the chance to register online.

The Christian Coalition plans to distribute 70 million guides to churchgoing voters. The National Rifle Association has coordinators in dozens of congressional districts. Associated Builders and Contractors, the construction industry trade group, is mailing out 100,000 bumper stickers, 50,000 buttons and 10,000 yard signs in support of GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush.

Some companies, like Blackboard, are seizing the Internet as a new tool in the voter wars, using software created by the company Election.com to register as many employees and other voters as possible.

A Microsoft affiliate has registered 100,000 people and the clothing store Lane Bryant registered 10,000, according to Election.com. Other companies, like 7-Eleven, use their corporate Web sites to link to Election.com’s registration site.

Election.com estimates its software has enabled more than 450,000 people to register so far.

Douglas Smith, director of events for Voter.com, a political Internet site that also uses Election.com, said companies sometimes can make a bigger splash by supplying voters, rather than dollars.

``They can move people in many different ways,″ Smith said. ``It would make sense for any company with big issues to make sure everyone is registered to vote. That’s just tremendous power.″

While use of the Internet may be new, corporate voter registration efforts are not, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

``Many of them are civic-minded,″ Gans said. ``They may or may not believe their employees will vote the way they want them to vote but the larger motivation is probably just simply good government.″

Blackboard provides software that allows colleges and universities to put course materials on the Internet, offer tests online and provide an instant messaging service that enables students to talk to their professors via the computer.

In three years, the company’s annual sales have grown to to $20 million. More than 1,000 schools use the software.

Inside the company’s three-floor office suite in downtown Washington, employees spurn ties and dresses for casual clothes. A Foosball game is surrounded by wall pennants of company clients, including Harvard, Duke and Cornell.

Sales director Andrew Olenik, who recently moved to the Washington area, was snared in the voter registration drive. He hadn’t gotten around to changing his registration and got the chance to do it on company time.

``You listen to the candidates and they talk about education,″ Olenik said. ``We’re an education company first and foremost. It relates directly to Blackboard.″

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On the Net: Blackboard Inc.: http://www.blackboard.com

Voter.com: http://www.voter.com

Election.com: http://election.com

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