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April 5-12, 2006

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Cyber Wars

District 3 county supervisor campaign defends email attempt to influence poll

By Sarah Phelan


'In response to the question, "Which declared candidate should replace outgoing county Supe Mardi Wormhoudt?," a Santa Cruz Sentinel online poll had Christopher Krohn capturing 51.1 percent of the 619 total votes cast, Neal Coonerty collecting 44.7 percent and Jonathan H. Boutelle trailing at 4.2 percent. But an email forwarded to Metro Santa Cruz indicates that winning candidate Krohn may have benefited from the influence of his wife, Rachel O'Malley, who sent out emails from her university account urging people to vote for her husband in the poll. O'Malley is chair of the San Jose State University environmental studies department.

"I don't know. You'd have to ask her," said candidate Krohn, when asked last Thursday if his wife did indeed send out the group email in question. "But," he added, "it was an unscientific poll, anyways."

Reached by phone, O'Malley promised she'd comment on record in the next 15 minutes, but did not do so until the following day. At that time, she denied any impropriety in using her university email account to influence the poll. "I am a university professor," O'Malley explained. "I live and breathe on my university Internet account. I'm sorry [Coonerty and Boutelle] lost a Sentinel poll. It must be hard."

Asked if the recipients, whom she says numbered no more than 25, included university faculty and students, O'Malley countered, "It was a personal email. You'll see in the [university] policy that there is a distinction between personal and professional use. The university supports intellectual freedom and open politicking space. That's what universities are all about. We don't censor personal communication at the university. And I'm very public about my opinion."

Except, that is, when it comes to having it leaked to the press. O'Malley claims that it was the recipient who forwarded the email who acted improperly. The standard at CSU and UC on email, she says, is that "unless you're authorized to publicize, it's private. It shouldn't have been forwarded to you." Ironically, the last line of O'Malley's email reads "Pass the word."

According to the Sentinel's online poll archives, Krohn received 316 votes, Coonerty got 277 and Boutelle scored 26 of the total 619 votes cast. Like the Field Poll, a California media-sponsored opinion service featured in other dailies across the state, the Sentinel's poll has opened the paper to criticism for using polling techniques to create news stories. But unlike the Field Poll, which uses scientific telephone polling methodologies, the Sentinel poll is essentially an online free-for-all.

As Krohn himself observes, "A scientific poll is 500 votes, usually done as a phone survey," and "a better sampling would be 800 votes." That said, he was not willing to totally discredit the Sentinel poll, saying, "It's a barometer of something."


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