SAN FRANCISCO: An online “primary” election by the progressive web-based organization Moveon.org garnered unprecedented attention in the US media on Tuesday, as commentators predicted the digital voting process could revolutionise grassroots politics.

The online voting process is not only being examined by high-brow political analysts in august papers like the New York Times, it is being discussed on network television. From CNN to ABC, news shows that normally concentrate on celebrities and that normally wouldn’t touch online elections for progressive Democrats with a barge pole were on Tuesday waxing lyrical about the innovative new scheme.

“They are at the cutting edge of a new political movement,” political analyst Simon Rosenberg said on CNN Tuesday.

Moveon.org opened polls on Tuesday for its 1.4 million registered members to vote for the Democratic candidate of their choice. Though it has no official standing, the Moveon.org vote could be the most crucial of all in terms of giving the winner an early advantage and the subsequent backing of the largest and most active progressive grassroots movement in the United States.

For those unfamiliar with the American political system, a short explanation might help. Democrats and Republicans choose their candidates for president based on votes cast in primaries in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia by voters registered as members of those two parties.

Front-runners in the states that hold their votes early in the primary season hold a crucial advantage because initial successes give them electoral momentum, and more importantly a huge bonus in attracting donations they can use to continue their electoral battle.

Traditionally, the two states with the earliest primaries or caucuses are New Hampshire and Iowa. But with those elections still months away the online progressive powerhouse formed in 1988 by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to fight the Clinton impeachment is changing the rules.

The online primary also marks the coming of age for Internet-based political advocacy groups. Prior to Moveon.org it took huge amounts of money to contact and recruit sufficient numbers of like-minded individuals to have any clout with the political system.

But Moveon.org managed to organize over 1.4 million members with just four workers toiling out of their homes in four different cities and now might have a decisive say in who gets to be the next US president.

The amount of cash raised by the group so far may not be huge by the standards of American political campaigns, but it is certainly more than a drop in the ocean.

According to Moveon.org the group raised 3.2 million dollars from its membership list for candidates in 2000 and 4.1 million dollars in 2002. In January, when it asked its members to donate 27,000 dollars to fund a television ad opposing war with Iraq, 400,000 dollars poured in. And when MoveOn.org urged its members to write the US Federal Communications Commission to oppose the media ownership rules, more than 200,000 did so.

The Moveon.org prize is not easy to win. The organization will only officially endorse one of the nine Democratic candidates if he or she garners at least 50 per cent of the vote. Results are due to be announced Friday.

If a candidate wins the endorsement Moveon.org will appeal to its members for on behalf of the candidate and put its resources at the candidate’s disposal. That could be worth millions of dollars. Fundraisers are salivating at the thought of tapping into this mother lode.

“It could be a huge support, not just in grass roots, but in contributions,” Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, told the Los Angeles Times.

The early voting showed just how enthusiastic Moveon.org’s members are about the online primary. When 50,000 of them tried to get online as polls opened on Tuesday the system was overwhelmed and had to be shut down.

The early front runners come from the left wing of the party — Dean, Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Ohio, and John Kerrey, the waspish Massachusetts senator who is currently the front-runner to win the overall nomination and take on President George W. Bush in the November 2004 presidential election.

But a left-wing activist prominent in the antiwar movement is doubtful that the Moveon.org will have much of an affect on the alignment of the American political system in which both parties attempt to win election by appealing to floating centrist voters.

He predicted that the Democratic Party would remain firmly in the hands of the centrist Democratic National Committee.

“The Republicans and Democrats will remain two almost identical branches of the same party,” he said. “I wish things would change more quickly, but there’s not a lot we can expect from the Democrats.”—dpa

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