Is it time for an extreme make-over of how America arrives at its presidential nominees?
A grass-roots effort to do just that is under way – with the intent of bypassing the traditional party-based primary and caucus process that begins Jan. 3 in Iowa.
The nonprofit Americans Elect aims to take party politics out of this method by putting a directly nominated nonpartisan presidential ticket on the ballot in 2012.
No, it's not a third party, says Elliot Ackerman, chief operating officer of AmericansElect.org, but rather a second way of nominating someone to be the country's next leader. This alternative, he says, "puts the people ahead of the parties" – and it is being carried out entirely online.
"Politics is one of the few places where you still have to accept Brand A and Brand B, so at Americans Elect we want to leverage our newest technologies to get us back to our oldest values, which is letting every voter participate in a meaningful way," Mr. Ackerman says.
If the group has its way, it will hold the first-ever nonpartisan online nominating convention, and the political ticket that emerges from it will be on the ballot in all 50 states.
But first there's a long row to hoe. Americans Elect must collect 2.9 million signatures, representing every state, from people who want such a nonpartisan ticket to qualify for the ballot. The drive, if successful, would mark the first time a presidential candidate nominated directly by the American people achieved ballot access. So far, 1.9 million people in 24 states have signed the petitions.
The as-yet-to-be-named ticket has already qualified for the ballot in seven states, including four swing states – Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio – and volunteers are gathering signatures in 13 others, says Kahlil Byrd, AmericansElect.org's chief executive officer. Americans Elect is waiting to hear if its signatures are sufficient to make the ballots in Arkansas, Hawaii, Utah, and California. In California, organizers submitted 1.6 million signatures in early October, more than for any single initiative in state history.
Financial backing for the endeavor is a mystery. Americans Elect is funded exclusively by some $20 million in contributions from unnamed individuals, says Mr. Byrd. The group's website says it intends to repay the initial financiers so that no single individual will have contributed more than $10,000.
Here's how the process works: Any registered voter, regardless of party, can sign up online to be a delegate (more than 200,000 people already have). First, delegates take an online survey that defines their core political views by ranking their priorities on a host of topics such as foreign policy, the economy, the environment, and social issues.
Next, delegates can submit questions of their own that they'd like prospective candidates to answer. Collectively, delegates will later decide the most important questions, which the eventual Americans Elect candidates will have to answer.
Later this year, the website will even match delegates to leading political figures – such as current and former presidential candidates, members of Congress, governors, and business leaders – on the basis of the delegates' own profiles and the prospective candidates' positions. Each delegate can then draft a candidate of his or her choosing, or any interested candidates (constitutional requirements withstanding) can throw their hat in the ring and seek the nomination for themselves.
Ackerman says several politicians and other potential candidates have expressed interest in the Americans Elect online convention but wouldn't reveal who or how many. The nominee would be selected at an online convention in June.
Finally, the nominated candidate must pick a running mate from a party that is not his or her own. The candidate can run a campaign unencumbered by the constraints of primary election rules and party affiliation, says Byrd.
"Candidates are not putting down the beliefs of their party," he says. "But they are reaching across the aisle for the opportunity to authentically focus on the issues people care about, not the ideology of their party."
Alternative candidates face daunting hurdles in the general election. Ross Perot won nearly 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election, but no other third-party bid has since come close to matching him.
The folks at Americans Elect, however, are not deterred, insisting the time is ripe for change. Some analysts agree.
"Conditions now are more fertile than ever for something politically disruptive to happen," argued Republican strategist Mark McKinnon at a public forum about Americans Elect at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in early November.
"[Americans Elect] is attracting a lot of [ideologically] center, center-left voters who are disenfranchised and not happy with Obama," says Mr. McKinnon. "And no matter what happens in the Republican [presidential] primary, there will be people who aren't happy with that outcome either."
Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty, also at the Harvard forum, makes a similar point.
"People are feeling really uncertain about the future, and they've lost confidence in the system," she says. "The volatility of the political climate suggests that voters are not very patient about what's happening in Washington."
Byrd and Ackerman hope their movement can help to restore faith in Washington.
"The real benefit of Americans Elect is that candidates are not beholden to the traditional ways of running for president," Byrd says. "Candidates can compete with authentic campaigns, not just with the party faithful but with the rest of America."