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From Exposing Superdelegates to the Bitter Brouhaha, Web Activists Make Their Mark

BY Ari Melber | Thursday, April 17 2008

In an article for next week's issue of The Nation, I check up on activists who are tracking the superdelegates online:

Mark Myers, a technology analyst, music blogger and Floridian who did not vote in the state's primary, came up with the idea for an online hub where people could "shine a light" on this arcane process. Backed by a coalition of blogs and good-government websites, the Superdelegate Transparency Project (STP) posts political, professional and personal information about the people who will ultimately decide the nomination. In its first two months, the nonprofit site drew more than 160,000 visitors.

The project is "open source"--meaning that most of the onerous research is conducted by an army of self-appointed volunteers. They scour public records for information, posting it directly online and call superdelegates for interviews, waving only their "citizen media" credentials. About 215 unpaid researchers report to Amanda Michel, a former online campaign organizer who now works for the Huffington Post. "We're not trying to influence the end outcome," she says. But if the superdelegates can essentially pick the nominee, the public has a right to learn more about "who they are and why they're chosen." Transparency is STP's only stated goal. It does not back a particular candidate or advocate a metric for how the superdelegates should vote.

Nannette Isler, a Long Island pediatrician, volunteered for STP after learning about superdelegates' voting power, which she found unfair. She says the site gives "ordinary citizens a greater insight into the nomination process." Isler wrote profiles and conducted an hourlong interview with Stephen Fontana, a DNC member and State Representative in Connecticut. Fontana, who read about STP on blogs, says he feels an obligation to respond to "Democratic activists who are trying to make the process more transparent." That makes him an unusually open insider. So far only 15 percent of superdelegates have agreed to talk, according to the Huffington Post.

This is an interesting time to evaluate online citizen journalism, since Obama's "bitter" brouhaha began with reporting from Mayhill Fowler for Huffington Post's OffTheBus project. Fowler, like other volunteers working on the transparency project, is building a new (and potentially influential) role in campaign coverage. Jay Rosen explains:

Fowler is a particular kind of Obama loyalist, a particular kind of contributor to his campaign. The kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence. The campaign doesn't know what it thinks about such people. The category into which she fits is not an existing one in journalism, which generally forbids contributions to candidates and open expressions of support.

These activists can upend a fundraiser, a week of campaign news, or even alter the "norms" for the entire nomination process, as I argue in the article:

Conor Kenny, an STP editor, contends that Internet activism is not only exposing the superdelegates' "old model" of decision-making but also helping redefine their obligations. "The cultural phenomenon of open-source information" enables voters to make more informed demands of their party, he says, and to "hold the superdelegates accountable" to represent their constituents. And next to every superdelegate's name, the STP lists whether they "agree" with the voters in their district...

Cementing a democratic standard for the Democratic nomination is an undeniable improvement. It is also, by definition, a departure from the old rules, which granted superdelegates independent power. They would never have to vote, after all, if the only valid choice was to ratify primary results. By democratizing the superdelegates' duty, Democrats may have found the backstop to keep from sliding toward another 1968, when the convention nomination process split the party and tarnished the nominee. After the last primaries end, it appears, there will be tremendous bottom-up pressure on superdelegates to uphold the popular will. Once activists ensure that superdelegates are reduced to a technicality, the party can make 2008 their finale, amending the rules to abolish superdelegates, finally removing elite supervision from the Democratic primaries.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation.