- Americans Elect has devised an alternative presidential nomination process
- Voters will choose a nonpartisan ticket through an online process
- Americans Elect is trying to steer political dialogue in a more centrist direction
- Critics warn the effort could erode the legitimacy of the eventual winner
Are you feeling uninspired this election season? Are you sick of all the attention being slathered on a small group of die-hard partisans in Iowa and New Hampshire? Do you think the political system's broken and your voice is ignored?
If you're looking for a change from the usual left-right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican dynamic, you may get your wish. There's a new group in the 2012 election, and it's aiming to redefine presidential politics by going around the major party machines and putting an alternative choice on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Americans Elect, which has raised $22 million so far, is harnessing the power of the Internet to conduct an unprecedented national online primary next spring. If all goes according to plan, the result will be a credible, nonpartisan ticket that pushes alternative centrist solutions to the growing problems America's current political leadership seems unwilling or unable to tackle.
The theory: If you break the stranglehold that more ideologically extreme primary voters and established interests currently have over presidential nominations, you will push Washington to seriously address tough economic and other issues. Even if the group's ticket doesn't win, its impact will force Democrats and Republicans in the nation's capital to start bridging their cavernous ideological divide.
"We're not a third party. We're a second nominating process trying to create a ticket that is solutions-based, that will force the conversation to the center rather than keeping it at the extremes of either party," says Ileana Wachtel, a spokeswoman for the group.
If you think Americans Elect is nothing more than a bunch of naïve dreamers, think again. Its leadership includes former New Jersey GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; former Clinton administration strategist Doug Schoen; former National Intelligence Director Adm. Dennis Blair; former FBI and CIA Director William Webster; and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, among others.
The group's CEO is Kahlil Byrd, former communications director for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat. Dan Winslow, a Massachusetts Republican state representative and a former chief counsel to GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, is also on board.
Funding for the effort was kicked off with over $5 million from investment banker Peter Ackerman. Financially, the ultimate goal is to limit each contributor's donation to no more than $10,000.
Americans Elect strategists believe they'll need around $35 million in total, half of which will likely be necessary to meet cumbersome ballot access requirements.
"The people who provided the seed money to get us started come from across the political spectrum," the group claims on its website. "Giving to Americans Elect buys you no special influence whatsoever, and all donors acknowledge that fact when they contribute."
One point of contention is that the group does not disclose the names of its donors, citing its nonprofit status and fears that contributors could find themselves losing potential business or social contacts. Critics contend the secrecy undermines the organization's claims of openness and transparency, and they argue that any group with such a clear electoral goal should not be exempt from disclosure rules governing the Democratic and Republican national committees.
Any registered voter -- Democrat, Republican, or otherwise -- can become an Americans Elect online delegate. Over 300,000 people have signed up so far. While anyone can seek the group's nomination, possible candidates will have to answer multiple online questionnaires.
Six prospective nominees will eventually be chosen by the delegates in an online winnowing process culminating in the selection of a ticket in June. According to the rules, two members of the same party will not be allowed to run together.
"When candidates pick running mates from outside their parties, it's a clear sign that they're working to build the consensus necessary to get things done," the group argues. "They'll govern without regard to the partisan interests of either major party."
Could New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg team up with former Secretary of State Colin Powell? How about Joe Lieberman and Condoleezza Rice? What about tapping a media celebrity like Tom Brokaw or a deficit hawk like former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles?
The list of possibilities is virtually endless, but the list of criticisms is long. Among other things, critics question the ability to stop a fringe group from hijacking the process and using Americans Elect to advance their own narrow cause. Possible nominees will have to be cleared by an independent committee and undergo a background check, but the committee's decision can be overruled by a majority of the delegates.
Will the online voting be secure from hackers? "We take that issue very seriously," Wachtel told CNN, noting that each delegate will be able to produce a paper record of his or her vote.
Josh Levine, the former chief technology and operations of E*Trade Financial, is tasked with the website's security.
A number of political observers question whether an Americans Elect ticket could ever have a serious shot at winning. For all the talk of voter alienation and disgust with Washington, broad segments of the electorate maintain strong party loyalties, and the country's winner-take-all electoral system remains a huge hurdle for anyone trying to break the two-party stranglehold. Ross Perot won nearly 20% of the vote in 1992 and didn't have a single electoral vote to show for his efforts; 270 electoral votes are needed to win the White House.
The last non-major party candidate to make any headway in the Electoral College was George Wallace, who ran in 1968 on a specific issue -- opposition to civil rights -- and with a very clear regional base of support. At the moment, Americans Elect appears to have neither.
Having a charismatic nominee might help, but would hardly guarantee electoral viability. When one of the most beloved politicians in U.S. history -- Theodore Roosevelt -- bucked the two-party system in 1912, he only succeeded in splitting the Republican vote and ensuring a victory for Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.
Veteran political analysts Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have speculated that an Americans Elect ticket may end up splitting the electorate next year in such a way that an otherwise unacceptable major party nominee ends up capturing the presidency.
"The nightmare scenario for us would be angry or demoralized independents and discouraged centrist Republicans gravitating toward the third candidate, enabling a far-right Republican nominee to prevail with a narrow electoral majority or with a plurality followed by a win in a deeply divided House," they recently wrote in The Washington Post.
The U.S. Constitution requires the House of Representatives to pick the president if no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes.
Ornstein and Mann also question the ability of an independent president to govern effectively, and fear the eventual winner's legitimacy could be undermined by a severe three-way split in the popular vote.
"In this tough environment, any diminishment of legitimacy for the winner is undesirable," they said.
Asked to respond, Wachtel told CNN the need for change is paramount.
"At this point, the system's already spoiled," she said. "We need to open the process up to more competition and more choices for the American people."