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The 3 Ways Americans Elect Could Improve Politics (and the 3 Ways it Could Go Wrong)

The summer is an empty stage. With Congress and the President going on extended vacations, with students away from campus and student activism on hold, there is a vacuum of traditional political news during the summer months, a vacuum that begs to be filled by some other story: the murder of an intern, shark attacks, insinuations of a terrorist attack and kerfuffles about mosques have been latched onto in recent summers. This summer, I expect the big political drama to be the emergence of Americans Elect.

What is Americans Elect?

Americans Elect is a 501c4 corporation with origins as Unity08, a group that in the 2008 election cycle publicly promoted itself as a vehicle for Americans to choose a presidential ticket in an online election while it privately positioned itself to run a Michael Bloomberg for President campaign. Unity08 failed because it did not attract popular support through the large number of the small-dollar campaign contributions that traditionally powered political campaigns in America.

Since Unity08’s failure, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can make unlimited expenditures to promote candidates. Subsequently, Unity08 reformed itself as Americans Elect, began taking large-dollar contributions from undisclosed sources, and with little fanfare began hiring paid petition gatherers to collect signatures to put it on the presidential ballot as its own political party. Americans Elect has already gained ballot access in a number of states.

The plan, as Americans Elect has begun to describe it:

  • Obtain ballot access in 50 states
  • Convince Americans to register at its website as “delegates”
  • Invite politicians to compete to run on the Americans Elect ticket for President and Vice President of the United States
  • Ask delegates to “help identify crucial issues” that will form the basis for campaigns
  • Ask delegates to “guide the formulation of a ‘Platform of Questions’ that candidates will be required to completely answer”
  • Set up an online voting system for the final Americans Elect presidential ticket to be selected
  • Include unspecified “checks and balances to make sure that vehicle stays on the road”

How could Americans Elect change American politics for the better? Where could Americans Elect go wrong? How can those pitfalls be avoided?

Opportunity #1. Americans Elect could kill political parties and gain a new third choice for president on Election Day.

Political parties, not American citizens, nominate presidential candidates in today’s system. Although some American citizens are permitted to participate in the selection of nominees, they usually can do so only as members of political parties, and only to a certain extent. In the 2008 presidential primary season, it looked for a time as if unelected “superdelegates” in the Democratic Party would have the ability to choose the Democratic presidential nominee independent of citizen input.

While Americans Elect is registering itself as a political party, it is promising an election system in which all citizens across the nation can participate by directly nominating a presidential candidate through an online election. If everyone can get together and cast a vote online to select a presidential candidate, who needs the old Democratic and Republican parties anymore?

Even if the Democratic and Republican parties survive the onslaught of Americans Elect, the new organization’s candidates will stand as an third alternative in the presidential elections. With more choices, American citizens may be able to support candidates that don’t fit in the two-party dichotomy.

Pitfall #1. Americans Elect could replace political parties with a new version of insiderism.

Americans Elect is only an improvement upon traditional political parties if it actually ends insider influence over candidate choice and allows all American citizens equal say in the selection process. When Americans Elect says that all Americans will be able to “help identify crucial issues” and “guide the formulation of a ‘Platform of Questions’,” what do the words “help” and “guide” mean? Will “delegates” have limited but non-determinative input in these matters? Will “delegates” be given the ability to choose from a limited set of alternatives? What sorts of choices will “delegates” not be permitted to make?

If Americans Elect arranges the choice of its presidential ticket to meet some standard predetermined by its corporate leadership, then the additional choice of an Americans Elect in the presidential elections wouldn’t be the people’s choice. It would be the addition of another corporate insider’s choice.

How to avoid pitfall #1. Make all substantive and procedural decisions by Americans Elect subject to delegate vote, with the field of alternatives generated by delegates. Allow delegates to overrule decisions made by Americans Elect corporate leadership.

Opportunity #2. Americans Elect could end the undemocratic dominance of small states holding early primaries.

Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada winnow the field of candidates down before voters in Florida, Utah, Alaska and Illinois have a chance to weigh in. Every American could be able to vote at once in a single primary election, giving every American an equal say in picking a presidential nominee.

Pitfall #2. Not every American can or does use the internet, the means by which this online election is to be held.

How to avoid pitfall #2. Make the Americans Elect voting process accessible to Americans with disabilities or who do not have computers. For those without access to the Internet, make an alternative means by which votes can be cast.

Opportunity #3. Americans Elect could put citizens in control of political discourse.

As the years pass, public access to presidential campaigns has become more limited. Questions at whistle-stop rallies are strictly regulated and pre-screened if they are allowed at all. Debates are staged and scripted. Citizens have even been ejected from events for wearing the wrong t-shirt or sporting the wrong bumper sticker on their car.

Americans Elect could reverse this trend by allowing everyday American citizens the ability to ask questions of and set standards for contenders for the presidential nomination in an environment controlled by those citizens, not by campaigns.

Pitfall #3. The Americans Elect corporation could restrict political discourse on its website.

Americans Elect’s direct predecessor, Unity08, regularly deleted posts on its website when they asked difficult questions, and even deleted Unity08’s own past statements when they proved embarrassing.

Americans Elect could use its administration of an online political community to ensure compliance with a party line.

How to avoid pitfall #3. Make it a policy not only to tolerate dissent on the Americans Elect website, but to encourage dissent and incorporate that dissent as an essential aspect of the Americans Elect process.

There is a significant opportunity for Americans Elect to use its mysteriously-obtained resources to open up the American political process. There is also the unfortunate potential for Americans Elect to squander that opportunity by driving the process from the top-down and manipulating rather than empowering the citizens who are looking for a good alternative to the same old two-party system. As Americans Elect rolls itself out this summer, pay close attention to see which path the corporation follows.

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