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How to pick your presidential candidate online

By Nathan Daschle, Special to CNN
updated 4:50 PM EDT, Thu April 19, 2012
A citizen casts her vote at a polling station April 3 in Washington.
A citizen casts her vote at a polling station April 3 in Washington.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nathan Daschle says Americans have long had two choices: Democrat or Republican
  • He says voters have record dissatisfaction with Congress, parties, want real change
  • He says Americans Elect allows them to pick a third presidential ticket in online "convention"
  • Daschle: "Elect" about electing leaders in a new way so that governed are truly consenting

Editor's note: Nathan Daschle is the founder and CEO of Ruck.us, an online political engagement community and he is a member of the Board of Advisors at Americans Elect. From 2007 to 2010, he was the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association .

(CNN) -- In 1982, we went to movie theaters, bought albums in record stores and did our research in the Encyclopedia Brittanica (which was sold to us by a door-to-door salesman). In households with kids, Saturday mornings from 8-11 were cartoon time -- the only part of our week that the three networks programmed for children. In politics, we chose from two parties: Democrat or Republican.

In the 30 years since, technology has thrown us through a time warp. Today, we buy songs for 99 cents on iTunes, get movies on demand through Netflix, do research by browsing Wikipedia, and children watch any cartoon they want at any time through several different devices. And yet, we still choose from the same two parties.

This disconnect -- between the rapidly evolving customer experience and the lagging political industry -- lies at the heart of our widespread dissatisfaction with politics. In the last decade, we have seen three "change" elections in a row, witnessed historic low approval ratings of Congress and the parties and seen a plurality of Americans identify as independent. Quantitatively, it's practically impossible for Americans to express any more dissatisfaction.

Nathan Daschle
Nathan Daschle

The reason we hit this tipping point is that technology has changed our life expectations. Whereas 30 years ago we were blissfully ignorant about our limitations, we now expect options, tailoring, customization and immediacy, none of which is available in the 19th century creation that is our two-party system.

Modern political parties are built to compete for 50% plus one of the electorate, so they struggle to provide an experience for the average voter that is unique enough to be meaningful. Meanwhile, having just two creates a "with us or against us" mentality, encouraging us to exaggerate our differences and deny our similarities. The whole structure is unnatural in today's world and a recipe for disillusionment.

Alas, what technology takes away with one hand it gives back with the other Start-ups that promote political engagement, like Our Time, Votizen, Pop Vox, and my own organization, Ruck.us are challenging orthodoxy and questioning long held assumptions about what is necessary to organize ourselves in a democratic republic. Techies like to call this "disruption."

Into this steps Americans Elect, a poignantly simple experiment in electoral politics. With 50-state ballot access, Americans Elect is holding an online nominating convention, so that all people -- not just those who have preselected an affiliation with a political party -- can participate in nominating a candidate.

The Americans Elect process is so user friendly, its only mystery is why the major parties haven't adopted something similar. Here's how it works: Any registered voter can become an Americans Elect Delegate at Americanselect.org and vote in the online, three-round primary starting May 8. Delegates also have input into the slate of questions that all declared candidates must answer. Imagine that -- getting raw information about candidates' positions without the filter of professional communications strategists.

Finally, the delegates vote in an online convention in June to select the bipartisan ticket that will appear on the Americans Elect ballot line in all 50 states. Simple, open and inclusive.

This digital revolution is more than just innovating for convenience. Something deeper and more significant is at stake: the integrity of our consent, the underpinning of our government's legitimacy and authority.

"Consent of the governed" only exists if it can be expressed, and that is an increasingly difficult task. When we vote for president, we don't simply vote for the best candidate; we vote for the best candidate who has previously been ratified by one of two political parties.

This creates a philosophical "blackout" space in which no candidate, because of his or her beliefs, will ever be elected president (see Jon Huntsman). This blackout space should concern all of us, because of its appeal to the general electorate, who will never get that option. What's worse is that this space is growing with each cycle. It's not clear that either Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton would get through their primaries today.

That's why the Americans Elect innovation is so exciting -- because it relieves us of anachronistic structures that harm our political system. It's the iTunes of politics.

Status quo apologists and those who benefit from partisan gridlock might pooh-pooh this idea, particularly if the candidate doesn't get to Ross Perot levels in November. But these critics miss the point. Americans Elect is not just about running for the White House in 2012. It's about electing our leaders in a new way so that the governed are truly consenting.

Moreover, while cynicism about the potential for change is understandable, naysayers are whistling past the graveyard. The trends are undeniable. Change it is a-coming, and it's likely to be in the form of a composite mash of Americans Elect, Ruck.us, and all of the other disruptive technologies.

Nostalgia is for photographs and yearbooks. If America is going to survive, politics needs to catch up with the times.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nathan Daschle.

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