Each primary night this season, while most people were looking to big, colorful maps on TV or on news websites to see how the candidates fared, political journalists and data nerds around the country had their screens open to an entirely different site: one that’s very green.
Called The Green Papers, it’s run by two reclusive men who managed to build, in their free time and for no money, the country’s pre-eminent source on primary delegates. It grew out of a decades-old friendship and a love of complicated rules and statistics.
The site has been covering primary delegate counts since 1999, back when that was considered a fringe topic in electoral politics. It emerged as a crucial element in the 2016 campaign, and The Green Papers does something very few media organizations are willing to do: accurately and independently tabulate delegates in real time.
As a result, it has accrued an impressive list of users. In the last month, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, FiveThirtyEight, The Huffington Post, CNN and even the U.S. State Department have cited The Green Papers as a source for their delegate counts.
The site itself, thegreenpapers.com, radiates old Internet charm. Every page is a shade of near-fluorescent green (hex color #99FF99) with a 1990s-era typographical mix of Comic Sans and Arial. Scrawled at the top of the home page are slogans like “We were blogging before it was cool.”
There’s a “hits” counter, currently at 2.5 million, and a notice of awards the site has won (“Political site of the day” and “Digital Government Award of Excellence”).
The site buzzes with the tension of the old web, each link charged with a small dose of mystery and danger — as I learned when I clicked one of the site’s booby traps reserved for spambots and ended up blocking the entire New York Times building from using the site, prompting a brief panic in nerdier corners of the newsroom.
The Green Papers owes its rise, in part, to the broken chain of information in America’s electoral system. Within constraints set by the national parties, each state party is allowed to devise its rules for awarding delegates to the national convention.
Normally, this quirk goes relatively unnoticed. Usually the big things, like national electoral data, primary winners and polls, are what matter. But in this election, it was often the small stuff that reigned supreme. Details typically buried in seldom-seen PowerPoints and technical PDFs (like proportionality, rounding rules and delegate allocation rules) became crucial to calling an accurate delegate count — and thus the state of the race.
“Election data in this country is organized disastrously,” said David Nir, political director for the politics blog Daily Kos. “Having 50 states conduct their own election rules is a mess and a nightmare. And most states don’t do a good job of putting this information out.”
What The Green Papers has been able to do is take the confusing hierarchy from party to state to county and flatten it into a very simple form. All of this information, district after district, is analyzed and tabulated in real time, as quickly as it is publicly available.
The gold standard for delegate counts is still the tabulation by The Associated Press. But its services are not free, and it doesn’t maintain a public database that is as near-fanatical in detail as The Green Papers. The encyclopedic nature of the site, which would be overkill in most elections, makes it useful — even for The AP.
“I love The Green Papers,” said Stephen Ohlemacher, lead delegate reporter at The AP. “When I’m doing research on how each state does their delegate count, I look at The Green Papers to see what they have. I use them to find original source documents.”
The entire corpus of The Green Papers is the product of two men in their early 60s: Richard Berg-Andersson and Tony Roza. They have been maintaining The Green Papers since the fall of 1999, at the start of the 2000 election cycle. But the original impulse for the duo to begin tabulating delegate counts goes all the way back to 1976, when they were undergraduates at Boston University. Avid politics nerds, Berg-Andersson and Roza posted weekly delegate counts from the local paper on their dorm room door for everyone to see.
Decades later, the two started talking about picking up their old delegate count again. This time, they decided, they would calculate the delegates themselves. So they started cobbling together the site, with Berg-Andersson handling editorial and Roza handling the delegate tabulation and site maintenance. They named it The Green Papers, in honor of the continuous computer paper with the sprocket edges that they used to print their delegate counts on.
Initially, the only people who wrote to the site were high school students with school projects. Still, “I was shocked that anyone was really interested in this stuff,” Berg-Andersson said. “It was so geeky.”
Then the foreign journalists came calling. “They couldn’t figure out why the media in the United States were estimating the delegates when the delegates weren’t chosen until much later,” Berg-Andersson said. “That’s why we have two separate counts — delegates that are actually legally pledged to candidates and a separate count where we do our own same estimates of how many delegates we think a candidate would likely get.”
Now Berg-Andersson receives hundreds of emails a month from domestic and foreign journalists, and sometimes political parties. He says he and his partner don’t make any money with the site, which is ad-free. “It was something I just enjoy doing and reading about,” he said.
Berg-Andersson, who says he is semiretired from being a credit manager for an electronics wholesaler in Manhattan, works out of his bedroom in Morris County, N.J., where, surrounded by old books on American government, election law, history and politics, he keeps track of all the delegate counts and rules on a Dell laptop while chatting with Roza (who lives in California) over AOL Instant Messenger. They haven’t met in person since 1999.
They have primary days down to a science. Berg-Andersson begins by getting a few coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts, which he stashes in the refrigerator for later. He checks to see if the delegate rules for the states he is covering have changed since they were filed in the fall. As the polls start closing, Roza will pull the data from each secretary of state’s office and update the key delegate breakout tables for each state. Meanwhile, Berg-Andersson will juggle questions from the news media and fellow data nerds over email, and he will call winners for Senate, House and other down-ballot primaries.
For Berg-Andersson, the entire evening condenses into a state of flow: “It’s natural. It’s like driving a car.”
It’s the deep investment in rules and data that has made the site such a successful source. Newer sites like ballotpedia.org, frontloading.blogspot.com and ourcampaigns.com have all added to the pool of knowledge about elections.
To do this kind of work requires an appetite for obsessive detail — which Berg-Andersson applies to his other hobbies, like detailed study of the New York City subway system, the American highway system and old maps.
“He’s kind of a savant,” said Dave Anderson, Berg-Andersson’s brother (Berg-Andersson legally changed his name to reflect his Swedish heritage). “His whole life, he has had a deep fascination for things that most of us would have a superficial view.”
Both men behind the papers are very private. Berg-Andersson, the spokesman for the site, refuses all news media requests for an interview in person, and he declines to be photographed. But in conversation he is open and frank with thoughts about gay marriage (he’s for it), the Confederate flag (not a fan, but respects people’s right to fly it) and the Islamic State (he think’s they’re “a street gang”). Roza, who places an even higher value on his privacy, communicates only by email and prefers to stick to the topic of The Green Papers.
The recent attention for their site amuses Berg-Andersson, but he has no illusions about fame for data nerds.
“I know having done this for 16-plus years, a year from now no one will be interested,” he said.