In June of this year, Americans Elect will offer Americans the chance to nominate a president using the internet. This is an incredible opportunity for millions of voters to participate in primary elections for the first time (remember, most voters don’t vote in Democratic or Republican primary races), but there are also some challenges in developing, designing, and implementing a credible online election process.
What is Americans Elect? In essence, Americans Elect is doing exactly what the Republican and Democratic parties have been able to do almost exclusively: put candidates on the ballot. Americans Elect is an online presidential primary in June 2012 open to all registered voters. The winner of the primary will appear on the general elections ballot in all fifty states in November 2012. The presidential elections will still be decided through a vote in November 2012, but instead of only choosing between the Democratic nominee (Barack Obama) and the Republican nominee (most likely Romney), registered voters will also have the chance to elect the Americans Elect nominee (the winner of the June online primaries).
Why is Americans Elect better than the current process? Today, primaries are decided by 30% of eligible voters through an antiquated system that heavily favors voters in a few early states. The ~125,000 dedicated GOP caucus participants in Iowa and the ~225,000 primary voters in New Hampshire have more say than the residents of New York, California, and Texas. The current process favors partisan extremes and neglects the interests of the majority of Americans.
Americans Elect is a thoughtfully designed process. Starting in January, registered voters will nominate candidates they would like to see run as the Americans Elect candidate. In April, the nominees will decide whether to participate. All of the candidates that decide to participate will then be asked to answer 15 questions that have been crowd-sourced by the Americans Elect user-base. This feature allows anyone to ask a question. Candidates will then be forced to answer the 15 most popular questions. Based on their answers, voters can decide which candidate best represents their preferences. During April, May, and June, the candidates will campaign to rally support from any registered voter in the country. In June, all users will be asked to cast their vote through the Americans Elect website. A winner will then be named. The winner gets a spot on the ballot in all fifty states in the general election.
Americans Elect will allow more voters to participate in the primary process. No longer will the extremes of either party decide the presidential nominee. It will allow all voters to shape the discussion and get direct answers to the most important questions. This is a much-needed break from the media driven sensationalism that has driven the process so far.
What are Americans Elect’s major challenges? The biggest challenge Americans Elect faces is getting credible candidates to participate in the process. Since Americans Elect does not provide the party infrastructure that is critical to presidential campaigns, their winner has a very low probability of defeating either the Republican or the Democratic nominees. Both are expected to raise and spend upwards of $750 million for the coming elections. After the June primary, the winner of the Americans Elect primary will be on their own to run their campaign and mobilize voters. The most likely outcome is that the Americans Elect candidate plays the role of spoiler for one of the parties, by attracting 5% to 10% of the vote in the general election. Candidates who actually want to be president are probably hesitant to play spoiler to a party they may want to be nominated by in the future. Still, I believe Americans Elect will be a positive force on the upcoming elections by providing a true alternative selected by the people.
I'm also concerned that Americans Elect has misrepresented itself as completely open and democratic. Their website reads, “We don't promote any issues, ideology or candidates.” But, Americans Elect requires that the chosen candidate selects a vice presidential running mate from a different party. That means that if a Republican like Huntsman wins, he will be forced to pick a Democrat as a VP, like Cuomo. This restriction favors centrist candidates and moderate politics.
While this may very well be a good thing in today’s landscape, voters should be aware that Americans Elect is built to promote centrist and moderate candidates. Before putting their nominee on the ballot, the organization also reviews the winning candidate and has to approve him/her as “presidential.” This protection is meant to prevent a truly radical group from hijacking the online process. Nonetheless, it means that Americans Elect is not fully democratic.
Despite these reservations, I believe that Americans Elect will be a historic process. Through its platform, millions of Americans will for the first time participate in a presidential primary process that actually matters. Even if its candidate does not win the general elections, Americans Elect will invigorate our democratic process and provide a moderate alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.
Photo Credit: Americans Elect