The response to the recent debt ceiling fiasco underscores how Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the U.S. government. Though many feel we are stuck with a two-party system after numerous attempts to elect a viable alternative candidate have failed, a new Internet-based political movement is emerging. The goal? To put a presidential nomination on the 2012 ballot derived completely from open voting on the Internet. Called Americans Elect, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization isn’t a traditional new political party, although it must register as one. Instead, it’s a way to nominate candidates in a more democratic fashion. So far, the group has submitted the required number of signatures to put a nomination on the ballot in eight states and has plans to be on 18 by year’s end. Democratic representation is an old idea that modern technology is reinventing, and the movement has the potential to change American politics forever…and that means 2012 will be an even wackier election year than it is already shaping up to be.
So how does one vote for an Americans Elect candidate? Anyone registered on the website can become a delegate. Users complete questionnaires to identify issues important to them and are matched to candidates with compatible positions. Any constitutionally-eligible citizen can become a candidate, with the only caveat being that running mates must be selected from a party other than their own. Then users will vote for their presidential candidate in June of next year and the top six will go into the second round of voting with their running mates so that voters can select the presidential ticket for the ballot. From a technological point of view, the biggest issue is website security and ensuring that voters can’t cheat the system, which could be as disastrous as the results from Florida in the 2000 election.
Because the group has filed as a nonprofit, social welfare organization, it is unclear exactly who is behind the movement, though a few hundred donors have helped them raise $20 million. What is clear is that an eclectic group with a broad range of political backgrounds is involved. The founder is Peter Ackerman who started FreshDirect.com, the online food and grocery retailer that serves New York and New Jersey. Ackerman’s vision can be described as a form of civil resistance to a political system that seems to silence the average American during election years.
In a nutshell, Americans Elect has plotted an alternative to the primary system, known for weeding out the candidates in the early part of an election year. One longstanding concern about primaries is that the earliest ones can be highly influential, and so certain states, such as New Hampshire, get special attention from presidential candidates. By making the nomination process open on the Internet, the intent is to rattle the political process that we’ve all grown accustomed to, shifting the balance back toward the people. Getting those officials elected who represent the people, not agendas, special interests, or political parties, is secondary to the Americans Elect cause. The group’s stated focus at this stage is simply getting their nominations on the ballot.
But third-party candidates are nothing new, especially in recent times. Over the last 20 years, a number of attempts at getting a third-party candidate into office have been made and often they receive a piece of the limelight long enough to vocalize the need to refocus the election on issues rather than personalities. In the 1992 election, Ross Perot burst on the scene in TV specials to focus the issue on the federal deficit, and as an independent, he captured nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. In 1996, he ran again this time under his newly formed Reform party, but only captured less than nine percent of the vote. Ralph Nader has run in the last four elections usually as a Green Party candidate, receiving the most attention in the infamous 2000 election when he received nearly three percent of the popular vote, which some say cost Al Gore the presidency. Other third parties have put forth candidates that never have gotten much traction, including Ron Paul who ran as a Libertarian in 1984.
Recent history shows that getting on the ballot doesn’t really sway the public, so what difference will a democratically nominated candidate make? As much as a two party system is frustrating, officials are not elected into office because of popular vote but by winning votes from the Electoral College, which naturally insulates the two parties from third party candidates. So while one out of every five voters selected Perot in 1992, he failed to win a single electoral vote. Some believe that the only real consequence of Perot's running was to complicate an election and ultimately swing young voters in the direction of Clinton versus Perot and the other older white conservative, George Bush. But the recent 2004 election also saw one electoral vote from an anonymous “faithless” elector in Minnesota surprisingly go to John Edwards, perhaps a sign that even within the Electoral College there are those who might love to buck the system.
The American Elect organization is definitely a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, the Electoral College isn't going anywhere soon, at least not without a controversy. That means that the two-party system with continue to thrive until enough viable candidates are on the ballot to prevent either of the two main party candidates from getting a majority of electoral votes. Unfortunately, the election doesn't revert to the popular vote, but the top three president/vice president candidates are then voted on by the House of Representatives. This offers some hope for a third candidate to be elected, but the truth is that our political system protects itself from democratically elected candidates. It isn't as if the people behind American Select don't know this, but it may very well be that they want to demonstrate just how far we are from a true democracy in our system for electing officials once step at a time.
What Americans Elect also aims to do is fuel the dialogue about how individuals get elected to office. Their approach has the potential to do what the Green, Libertarian, and Reform parties, as well as any independent, has failed to do and that is to get traction in the minds of the American public. This may not be as difficult as it seems based on the amount of news coverage received in the last election. With increasing numbers of Americans getting their news from the Internet, 2012 may be ripe for a virtual revolution. If not, there’s always the next one and the next one and…
What does this all mean for the Singularity? Who knows, but you can voice your opinion in our debate here.