Fri, 20 Jun 2003
Some activists smell something fishy about next week's Web-based "primary" to test the early strength of Democratic presidential contenders. While a number of the candidates are urging their supporters to vote in the Moveon.org event, some strategists see it as skewed toward Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who shares the group's antiwar views. "It appears to be rigged," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign.
"I'm sorry people feel that way," said Moveon.org co-founder Wes Boyd. "A few days ago, some of the campaigns weren't taking this vote seriously." But now that the event has gotten some news media and grass-roots attention, Boyd said, "some campaigns are trying to delegitimatize this process."
Launched in 1998 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, Moveon.org says 1.4 million people have participated in its petition and mobilization efforts.
Boyd said he expects "hundreds of thousands" to vote in next week's event, which will be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. For comparison, about 156,000 voted in the 2000 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.
Boyd said his group sent a memo to all nine Democratic contenders explaining how the primary would work. In a pre-primary straw poll, the group determined that the three favorites among its members were Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Only the three favorites get a promotional e-mail sent out on their behalf to people who register to vote in the Moveon.org event.
Playing down the importance of the Moveon.org vote, one operative working in a 2004 campaign said, "It is widely recognized that this is Howard Dean's guaranteed win."
The group will announce the outcome of the vote Friday. If any of the contenders garners more than 50 percent of the votes, he'll get Moveon.org's endorsement for the Democratic nomination.
"We're setting a high bar; it will be very difficult for anybody to achieve that," said Boyd.
He said the group decided to conduct its self-styled primary early in the campaign because "ordinary people should get involved and not let the pundits and big contributors determine the field."
A Dean victory in the Moveon.org primary would add a positive note to what has been a recent series of news-making coups for the Vermont maverick. Last week, Dean launched the first television ads run so far by any Democratic presidential contender.
And last weekend at the Wisconsin Democratic Party convention, in a straw poll organized by National Journal's Campaign Hotline, Dean placed first, although only 352 votes were cast.
Moveon.org has played a lead role in opposing President Bush's Iraq policy and is currently running newspaper ads with the headline "MISLEADER" superimposed on a photo of Bush.
Moveon.org's antiwar orientation seems to give a decided advantage in its primary to the two contenders who have been most outspoken in opposing Bush's Iraq policy, Dean and Kucinich.
So why, then, have Democratic hopefuls Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John Edwards -- who all voted to authorize Bush's invasion of Iraq -- urged their supporters to take part in the Moveon.org event?
Lieberman campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera told MSNBC.com, "We encourage our supporters to participate, but we encourage them to participate in as many venues and forums as possible."
But Cabrera acknowledged, "When it comes to organizing in cyberspace, the advantage goes to other campaigns. We recognize that Howard Dean has made an extraordinary effort when it comes to organizing people online."
Gephardt campaign spokesman Smith said Gephardt was competing in the Moveon.org primary because "we don't to write anybody off. These (Moveon.org members) are passionate Democrats."
One prominent Democrat who is not affiliated with any campaign was critical of Moveon.org's timing. Simon Rosenberg, the president of the New Democratic Network, a centrist fund-raising group, said Moveon.org might diminish its clout by endorsing a candidate so early.
"My concern in that this primary -- and if they end up endorsing (a candidate) -- could dramatically limit their long-term ability to be influential in the Democratic Party," said Rosenberg. "They have taken an enormous risk. I hope they know what they are doing."
Moveon.org staffer Zack Exley recently took a two-week leave of absence from the group to work as paid consultant for the Dean campaign on how to improve its Internet voter mobilization tools.
Exley said Moveon.org had offered to share its expertise with other Democratic presidential contenders as well. His work for Dean, Exley said, "should not be interpreted as a sign that the Move.on staff has an interest in endorsing Dean."
He added, "We're supporting all the Democratic candidates" by offering to spread Moveon.org's Internet expertise.
One computer expert suggested there's reason to question the validity of any Internet vote.
"It is impossible to ensure an accurate vote over the Internet, using conventional computer hardware and software (e.g., PCs running Windows, etc.)," said Lauren Weinstein, the co-founder of a group called People For Internet Responsibility.
"The fundamental nature of these systems makes them open to voting compromise in a vast number of ways, most of which could be completely hidden from the user," said Weinstein. "Vote hackers could even plant viruses on systems way in advance that would just sit and wait for an election."
Asked about Weinstein's analysis, Boyd conceded there may be "opportunities for abuse" in the Moveon.org vote, but he noted, "there are opportunities for abuses in our larger electoral system as well."
The group has commissioned a telephone exit poll of a sample of those who take part in next week's vote to see if the sample jibes with the total raw vote. If the exit poll is substantially at odds with the total vote, Boyd said, the group may try to find out if the vote was manipulated in some way.
Putting aside the technical questions, if Dean does indeed win the Moveon.org vote, the rival campaigns will quickly seek to, as they say, just move on.