07.22.11

The Web’s Stealth Presidential Race

Big names have quietly launched an Internet presidential race that will offer the winner a real election ballot spot in all 50 states. Will this be 2012’s spoiler?

Imagine what our election system might look like if it were designed today: No Byzantine electoral college, no long lines on a random Tuesday, no closed primaries that force candidates into the arms of their party’s special interests. Modern Madisons and Hamiltons would try to devise a process that’s open, online, citizen-driven, and capable of producing leaders that can unify the nation once in office.

That’s the idealist vision driving a new group, Americans Elect, which has quietly collected enough signatures to secure a 2012 ballot line in eight states, including Arizona, Michigan, and Missouri. They will soon submit an unprecedented 1.6 million signatures in California.

The ballot position they’re securing isn’t for a specific platform, person, or ideology, but rather an entirely new way to elect a president. As Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, explains it, “This isn’t a third party—it’s a second process.”

Here’s how the group envisions it will work: An online convention will take place over a course of two weeks in June 2012. Any registered voter can participate as a delegate, after signing up securely at the newly launched AmericansElect.org. Through a series of interactive online questionnaires, they will be able to seek out potential candidates whose policy positions most closely resemble their own. A party platform will be determined and candidates drafted. A final field of six prospective nominees will then each select a running mate from a different party, with those options eventually winnowed down to a bipartisan ticket that will inherit the Americans Elect ballot line in, the organizers hope, all 50 states.

It’s old-school democracy married to modern technology, marketed to a fertile audience. In May, Gallup found that a majority of Americans support the creation of a third party, including 68 percent of independent voters—and that was before Washington’s debt-ceiling dysfunction. This disconnect is compounded by the fact that Republicans and Democrats still play by Industrial Age rules, even though consumers have shown in every other field that they are no longer satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.

Americans Elect gets this. Like Egypt’s leaderless Facebook revolution, this is a movement without a candidate, happy to create a platform via wiki, and identify potential presidents the way Pandora figures out whether you like Kanye West or Johnny Cash.

The money behind Americans Elect understands disruptive business models. The group’s founder, entrepreneur Peter Ackerman (father of Elliot), started FreshDirect.com, which has upended the New York grocery business by letting customers order food and basics online, delivered straight from a warehouse. He and some 50 other initial donors have loaned the organization $20 million, out of an eventual $30 million budgeted, to be repaid if small donors join on. (Their eventual goal: No single individual will give more than $10,000. The group does not accept donations from PACs, political parties, or industry associations.)

A bunch of political pros—“politically homeless,” in the words of Michael Arno, the California-based political consultant overseeing Americans Elect’s national ballot access—have signed on. CEO Kalil Byrd is a Republican who served as communications director for Democrat Deval Patrick’s victorious gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts. Senior political adviser and pollster Doug Schoen worked for President Clinton and Mayor Bloomberg (and often polls for Newsweek/The Daily Beast). An impressive board of tri-partisan advisers ranges from former FBI Director William H. Webster to former CEO of Hallmark Irvine Hockaday to the dean of Tufts' Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Stephen W. Bosworth.  

Over the past several months, I attended one of 400 off-the-record fundraisers and visited the Americans Elect offices in Washington and New York (disclosure: I'm one of a dozen founding leaders of the group No Labels, which encourages bipartisan problem-solving in our politics but is unrelated to Americans Elect.). The latter looks, naturally, like a tech startup: T-shirted programmers sit in conference rooms with code written on the glass walls and website designs taped on every vertical surface. There are photocopied diagrams of Conway’s Participation Continuum ("Activate. Sustain. Retain.") and plans to use early adopters to propel a multistage website rollout.

The nuts and bolts of politics isn’t quite so virtual. I hit the streets of San Francisco with canvasser Cynthia Ford, who began collecting signatures for the group in March.  “A lot of folks [who sign the petition] feel a little alienated by the system,” she told me. “They want to know if this is an opportunity to have a choice beyond the two major political parties, and the answer is yes.”  

Skeptics, of course, can have a field day with this techno-utopian political fantasy. Casting aside technical hurdles regarding the system’s security and integrity (“We've taken measures stronger than banks and brokerage firms in the financial industry,” says designer Joshua S. Levine, who cut his professional teeth as chief technical officer and chief operating officer of E*Trade), there’s the even more daunting prospect of getting on the ballots, when neither Democrats nor Republicans want them to succeed. In Kansas, after submitting twice the necessary number of signatures, Americans Elect was initially denied a ballot line because 60 of the 30,000 signatures came from outside the specified six-month timeframe—a decision that was later overruled.   

And that’s all before the candidate-selection process, and the chance that an organized faction could hijack the process, delivering the nomination to a charismatic joke candidate (think Donald Trump). 

But what if, on the other hand, a civic celebrity like Tom Brokaw emerged? Or a frustrated would-be-nominee, whether one with an intense ideological fanbase like libertarian Congressman Ron Paul or a center-right candidate like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who finds the current composition of the GOP primaries too conservative to survive. More likely is the nomination of a centrist dream team, like a Mike Bloomberg-Colin Powell competence ticket or a fiscal-responsibility double bill of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Mark Warner, Chuck Hagel, David Petraeus—the possibilities are infinite. 

Like Egypt’s leaderless Facebook revolution, this is a movement without a candidate.

“I think there's a lot of radical centrists out there,” says Arno. “If you took a center-right candidate, paired him with a center-left candidate and they got along and talked bipartisan solutions and how we're going to have the bully pulpit and persuade Congress this is the mandate of the people, I think it changes electoral politics. Of course, it's tougher to win some of the really die‑hard blue states and some of the really die‑hard red states, but you’ve only got to win 270.” 

Of course, the prospect of a credible third party on the ballot could deny any candidate the ability to get to 270 electoral votes, which would throw the election to the House of Representatives, not known for its statesmanship over the past weeks. Likewise, this election cycle—boiled down, a referendum on the incumbent—is less than ideal. President Obama’s supporters will be concerned that a bipartisan ticket could serve as a spoiler, drawing disaffected centrist support away from the president and delivering the White House to a Tea Party conservative. Alternately, Americans Elect could deny Republicans enough crossover votes to come within shouting distance of the White House.

But the tradeoff is compelling: more voter choice and a positive alternative to polarization. If the Americans Elect ticket gets at least 5 percent of the vote in most states, that ballot line will exist in 2014 and 2016, creating the framework for a potential third party committed to political reform and combating hyperpartisanship. “If we change the tone in Washington,” says Arno, “I think we'd all be extremely happy.”