As 2005 and 2006 were the years that blogs were at their peak influence in elections, I expect that Wikipedia will be at its peak influence in Virginia’s 2009 election.
Virginia’s constant elections put us in an unusual position of innovation. We’re always in the midst of an election cycle, so we’re in a position to capitalize on new trends. Blogs became a major part of the public awareness in 2005, but Virginia and New Jersey were the only states with elections that November, so we were the pathbreakers.
Wikipedia is in the process of expanding to a new level of detail and relevance. As more people learn to contribute to Wikipedia, and as more entries of international and national importance are basically completed, we’re seeing editors turn towards establishing and enhancing entries for topics of state and local note. You’re getting guys like me creating entries for the Monticello Wine Company, Lane High School, Yancey Mills, and Paul Goodloe McIntire. Wikipedia is local now.
The reason that candidates will be concerned about their Wikipedia entry is the prominence with which they show up in Google. Because Wikipedia’s Google PageRank is at the highest possible level (ten out of ten), most entries are like to be within the top three results. Simply establishing a Wikipedia entry, no matter how brief, is enough to make it a major source of information about that candidate for voters.
But the standard rules of political blogging don’t apply here. Unlike blogs, Wikipedia entries can’t be partisan, no original research is permitted, and every stated claim must be supported by a citation—text in violation of any of those standards isn’t liable to remain in place for long. But the facts are not always kind to candidates, and we’ve already seen one delegate get upset about his Wikipedia entry. The truth can be enormously damaging. Even the standard rules of partisan behavior don’t apply: I’ve put significantly more time into removing inaccuracy, unkind information from Virgil Goode’s Wikipedia entry than adding factual, negative information about him there. Like many Wikipedia editors, I believe that accuracy trumps all else. Since information has a well-known liberal bias, I figure that works out for me as a Democrat, anyhow.
Trickier still, candidates and their campaigns can’t edit Wikipedia entries about them. Not only is it against the rules of Wikipedia, but they’ll almost certainly get nailed for it, and that has enormous potential to be embarrassing. My advice for campaigns is to be cognizant of their Wikipedia entry, to have a campaign employee documenting inaccuracies on the entry’s talk page, but to never change a word. (Unless you’re a Republican candidate, in which case I encourage you to white-wash your entry so that I can humiliate you.)
As for the rest of you—Democrats and Republicans alike—I suggest that you create an account, learn the mechanics of editing entries, and take some time to learn about the community standards. Then go forth and enhance some Wikipedia entries about Virginia politics.