DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

Well, one thing Mara didn't talk about are the conventions. They are coming and the parties have some business to take care of, and that is writing their platforms. The Democrats start today while the Republican platform committee meets later this month.

This year, the parties say they want to hear from you. They're trying new methods to democratize the platforms, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, democracy has its limits.

MARTIN KASTE: It probably shouldn't come as surprise that the Democrats' approach involves folding chairs.

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KASTE: Tonight, party activist Sim Larkin is going with the tried and true semi-circle formation. Outside it's a gorgeous summer evening in Seattle. But in here Larkin wants to talk global warming.

TIM LARKIN: We're holding a energy and the environment platform meeting. This is to give feedback into the National Democratic Party platform so that it can properly reflect all of our views.

KASTE: This is just one of the 1,400 local platform meetings that the Democrats have been holding this summer. The idea for the meetings came from the Obama camp, which has a well-established affinity for caucus-style meetings.

Tonight, 10 people show up, and Tim Larkin takes to the blackboard.

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KASTE: The discussion starts out a little haphazardly. One man wonders if they should call for limits on the profits of renewable energy companies to make sure they don't get greedy. Another man says the real issue should be population control. But Larkin gently nudges the group toward more general statements.

LARKIN: Some phrase like: to ensure that life on the planet is protected, our children's children will be better off...

KASTE: This scene is pure Norman Rockwell, or it's a three-hour exercise in tedium. It depends on your point of view. Things are more instantaneous on the Republican side.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Hi, I'm Congressman Kevin McCarthy from California.

KASTE: This is the welcome video on GOPPlatform2008.com.

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MCCARTHY: As easy as clicking your mouse, you will join millions of other Republicans who care about the principles and aspirations of our party in an historic opportunity to help craft our party's platform using the Internet.

KASTE: The site invites comments in seven broad categories, things like national security and health-care reform, but that doesn't constrain users with other issues on their minds. For instance, there are hundreds of comments condemning illegal immigration, even though there's no category for that. People also post videos. Some address foreign relations.

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KASTE: I hope that we as a party will adopt a resolution stating our support for the State of Israel.

KASTE: And some, domestic relations.

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Unidentified Man #2 (Republican Voter): More and more in this country, men are defendants in no-fault divorces. They did nothing wrong, but the plaintiff, their spouse, takes them to court and wins sole custody, and that's a problem.

KASTE: And then there are just videos that are generally patriotic, like this one with music played over scenes of American flags.

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KASTE: Republican spokesperson Amber Wilkerson says the Web site brings more people into the process.

AMBER WILKERSON: We think it's a very easy way for folks to get involved in a process without having to leave the comfort of their own computers.

KASTE: The Democrats are quick to say that they considered this approach, but platform director Michael Yaki says online isn't always better.

MICHAEL YAKI: We wanted real people, looking in each other's eyes, you know, user22, you know, samaraihatchetman5, commenting on something. They have a real living, breathing human being who has issues that they care about as much as you do.

KASTE: The parties do have this in common: neither feels obliged to use all these views from the grass roots. The Republican Party says it's cataloging the online comments, but so far there's no system for getting those comments to the platform committee, and while the Democratic platform director says he will read the letters from all 1,400 meetings, he says they can't all expect to be quoted in the final product. What he's looking for, he says, is inspiration. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

AMOS: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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