Americans Elect? More Like American't Elect

Today is May 15, 2012, and if you're up on this year's most misbegotten political ideas, you know what that means: Today is the deadline for Americans Elect to offer up a candidate for the ballot line it has managed to secure in 25 states.

Over the past two years, Americans Elect has focused on achieving three clear goals:
  • Gaining nationwide ballot access for a third presidential ticket to compete in the 2012 race;
  • Holding the first ever nonpartisan secure national online primary at AmericansElect.org; and
  • Fielding a credible, balanced, unaffiliated ticket for the 2012 presidential race.

Through the efforts of thousands of staffers, volunteers, and leadership, Americans Elect has achieved every stated operational goal. Despite these efforts, as of today, no candidate has reached the national support threshold required to enter the “Americans Elect Online Convention” this June.

So, there you have it. Americans Elect achieved all its goals, save for that one teensy part where it actually delivers a candidate or candidates to a "caucus" for "delegates" to select. (This sort of makes its claim that it was successful in "fielding a credible, balanced, unaffiliated ticket for the 2012 presidential race" a little dubious.)

What needed to happen by today is that one (or more) of the "declared" candidates for the Americans Elect ballot had to surmount the organization's standards for selection, which were as stringent as they were arbitrary. If you were a candidate with noteworthy experience -- say, you were a former governor or senator or mayor of a decently sized city or you headed up a key government agency -- you needed at least 1,000 people from at least 10 different states to offer you their "support click." If you were somebody with less experience, you needed 5,000 "support clicks" in 10 states to clear the bar.

Buddy Roemer, who was the most successful "declared" candidate, managed 5,971 "support clicks." The most successful candidate on the "draft" side, was -- no surprise! -- Ron Paul, who came the closest to the mark with 9,330 "support clicks."

Of course, had Roemer or Paul managed to secure the nomination, this would have been a huge bummer to the people who came up with this idea in the first place. Paul is an idiosyncratic libertarian who wants to scuttle the Federal Reserve. Roemer is running on a platform that calls for massive reforms in the way that money is used to influence elections and legislation. This is all anathema to the wealthy hedge fund managers and centrist elites who formed the backbone of Americans Elect.

So, this thing was a big bust across every conceivable dimension and there are lots of reasons for the failure to launch. Previously, I went over the many ways that the Americans Elect website -- which was intended to serve as a dynamic online portal to all this robust political activity -- was sadly lacking in cutting-edge community building tools and social media innovations. And it never really helped that the people behind Americans Elect chose to present themselves in such an opaque fashion.

But the real problem lies at the root of this exercise. Successful third parties go to great pains to identify and occupy political territory that they deem to be unclaimed. When Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party come to town, they have a specific agenda and they draw clear contrasts and they put that right out in front.

Americans Elect didn't lack an agenda. It was clearly looking for some centrist candidate in the Bloombergian mold -- someone conservative enough to make the "tough choices" to defund New Deal entitlement programs but liberal enough to understand that tornados in Oklahoma were not sent by Jesus to punish a gay couple in Tulsa for adopting dogs. If you believe that global warming is real and Alan Bersin's reign over the San Diego public school system was awesome, you were just the person to run on Americans Elect's ticket.

For whatever reason, Americans Elect decided that it would be too vulgar or too revealing to be up-front about what sort of candidate was the group's ideal. But the big "tell" comes with the organization's rule regarding the vice presidential pick. Under Americans Elect, a candidate would have to choose a running mate that "balanced" the ticket. This presents a different challenge for different people. If the candidate is, say, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, essentially a centrist, he could reach for a running mate that was from the same basic ideological lane. But if you're Ron Paul, you aren't allowed to choose Rand Paul. Ron Paul would have to pick someone with wildly divergent political opinions, for "balance."

It shouldn't be a stretch to argue that the vast majority of reasonable American voters would find this to be asinine. Presidents should obviously be able to choose an ideological ally to run alongside. The whole point to having a vice president is to provide for a seamless transition of power should tragedy befall the president so that the vice president would continue the work that his or her predecessor was elected to do. Americans Elect would have forced anyone who was not a centrist candidate to assemble an insane ticket or void their nomination.

So, it's very clear what Americans Elect's agenda was. It's just as clear that all the efforts it undertook to mask this from people went a long way toward discouraging participation. Americans Elect concludes its electoral activities with more than 120 pages of candidates on its website to choose from, running the gamut from President Barack Obama to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. (No, I am not making this up.) And that's just the people who you may have heard of. Just about everyone you can name that once held an office and is still alive is a "choice" for the Americans Elect ballot line.

And that's the chief way the organization camouflaged its hopes. "Hey," claims Americans Elect, "we are all about ordinary people making choices!" But when you offer everyone every choice, you actually aren't doing what a third party is supposed to do -- define your agenda and relentlessly make a case for it. I guess the actual work of building a brief for its centrist vision was just too taxing! And so the group decided on this cart-before-the-horse game, where millions of online participants magically prove their thesis for them.

Maybe Americans Elect will give this another go. If it does, it should just cut the coyness and the elaborate illusion of choice and actually do some real work. In the meanwhile, you can still donate to the effort. Be advised, however: For several months now, Americans Elect has sought donations for the specific purpose of allowing the stupid people who invested in this dumb idea to recoup their terrible investment. They won't grow as people if they don't learn from their mistakes.

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