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Online 'Primary' Day

GENERIC Internet politics voting web computer
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Iowa and New Hampshire fought tooth and nail to keep their "first-in-the-nation" status, but technology has passed them by. At 12 a.m. Tuesday, the cyber-polls opened for the season's first presidential "primary," an online race on the progressive Web site, MoveOn.org. With about a million and a half eligible voters, a virtual win could boost a candidate's visibility and fundraising totals.

MoveOn, a liberal advocacy group formed to rally against President Clinton's impeachment in 1998, now boasts an online membership of 1.4 million. Saying they were tired of rich donors and political pundits choosing the Democratic Party's nominee, MoveOn members decided to make their votes count early on in the campaign. All members, and an additional 75,000 non-members who have registered to vote, will receive an e-mail ballot to choose among the nine announced Democratic contenders. The "polls" are open until 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday and results will be announced on Friday.

MoveOn will endorse the winning candidate should he or she receive more than 50 percent of the vote; if no one reaches 50 percent, the primary process will continue.

The early favorite is the most Internet-savvy of the Democrats, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. In his presidential announcement speech Monday, Dean courted online voters with words of praise for MoveOn.org's mission to "seek to build a community of millions and strengthen the voice of the people."

Dean, along with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, finished at the top of MoveOn's May 29 straw poll, gaining the extra privilege of e-mailing online voters in the week before the primary. All nine candidates were allowed to post a message and the answers to seven interview questions, but Rep. Dick Gephardt's team called foul play. Spokesman Erik Smith told the AP, "We are not going to change our participation at this point, but we are concerned that the process seems rigged. We think there is a legitimate role for Move On to organize grass-roots support for candidate, but we are worried that it appears they are playing favorites."

In turn, some Dean supporters claimed that the Gephardt folks are telling their supporters to vote for Kucinich as a way of cutting into Dean's strength.

Others have called Zach Exley, MoveOn's organizing director, a "double agent" since he took a two-week leave of absence to help the Dean campaign set up some campaign software. MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd argued that he offered Exley's expertise to other candidates, but Dean was the only one to show interest in a significant online progressive organization.

On the charge that MoveOn is not representative of American voters since its constituency leans towards the more liberal candidates, some counter that New Hampshire and Iowa aren't particularly representative either. The group says it doesn't try to claim neutrality, but that it is trying to balance the centrist movement of the Democratic Leadership Council.

In 1998, Boyd and Joan Blades, two wealthy Silicon Valley software gurus, started with an electronic petition that urged Congress to censure President Clinton and "move on" to more important issues. Now, MoveOn has grown into a successful advocacy PAC. In the fall, the Web site opposed President Bush's war with Iraq, gaining 800,000 members. Recently, they added 100,000 activists in opposition to issues such as the Federal Communications Commission's decision to allow big media companies to own more properties.

With four employees working out of their homes in different cities, MoveOn has been able to raise huge sums of money over the Internet for various causes and candidates, without the conventional costs of running a political organization. In 2000, the group raised $3.2 million for candidates; in 2002, it raised $4.1 million. So, if a candidate is able to secure a MoveOn endorsement, it could bring in millions in campaign dollars.

It is difficult to predict the future of online voting because this is the first virtual experiment on a presidential scale, but MoveOn's success thus far bodes well for the future of Internet politics.

"I expect that by the [2008] presidential election, there will be dozens of organizations like MoveOn," Boyd told the Los Angeles Times. For now, the buzz surrounding MoveOn's venture into cyberspace politics means a certain degree of success for grassroots activism on the Net.

By Joanna Schubert