The Clickster Party
Americans Elect is mounting a high-tech, online challenge to the two-party system, but they’re doing it with big bucks from traditional conservatives.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
With hyperpartisanship in Washington at a fever pitch and Occupy protesters demanding accountability and transparency from some of the biggest donors in politics, the widespread discontent with the U.S. status quo is jolting citizens out of their malaise and into the streets.
In the midst of this maelstrom, a powerful coalition has created an online platform they say will put power in the hands of the people and get the first-ever directly nominated nonpartisan ticket on the ballot in all 50 states. The people, not the political parties, will determine debate questions, narrow the candidate field, and, through an online caucus, select a presidential candidate for the 2012 general election.
That’s the vision for Americans Elect, founded by multimillionaire entrepreneur Peter Ackerman (the man behind online grocery service FreshDirect.com) and run by his son, Elliot, and longtime political operative Khalil Byrd (whose past Republican and Democratic clients include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick). Their goals are lofty, their approach innovative, their website impressive.
“We want to leverage our newest technologies to get back to some of our oldest values… letting every voter participate in a meaningful way,” Elliot Ackerman said in an appearance on The Colbert Report.
But even before AE’s activity officially gets underway, some are questioning whether a movement bankrolled by big bucks and led by political veterans can truly connect with ordinary Americans to spark a grassroots political revolution.
American democracy has long been in dire need of a digital-age reboot, according to Kellen Arno.
“We’re trying to use an 18th-century political process to solve 21st-century problems,” says Arno, AE’s national field director. “Americans Elect is trying to advocate for an online caucus in which anyone who signs up becomes a delegate and has an equal say in selecting a presidential candidate.”
Becoming a delegate is simple. I log on to AmericansElect.org, click “sign up,” and am greeted with a cheerful color wheel. Each color corresponds to a “priority” – yellow to healthcare, orange to economy, and so on. I move my mouse over the priorities, giving certain issues the largest pieces of the priority pie. My painter’s palette complete, I move on to multiple-choice questions on education, immigration and other politically charged issues. The site shows me a U.S. map with the per-state percentages of AE delegates who chose my answer; turns out I vote with the majority most of the time.
And that means the bulk of AE’s delegates skew progressive.
“If you look at the people who came to us first, it’s New York Times readers, Colbert Report viewers,” Arno says, ticking off the names of left-leaning media outlets which first seized upon Americans Elect in late July and early August. AE has big plans for on-the-ground outreach to conservative communities, as well as low-income and minority voters.
Now that I’m a registered delegate, I can pose questions to prospective candidates; my fellow delegates can up – or down-vote them, and vice versa. The questions with the most votes will be used to create a party platform for next June’s two-week online convention, where the six candidate finalists will select a running mate from a different party and duke it out for delegates’ votes. The winning pair will become AE’s bipartisan ticket, and contend with Obama, Cain, Romney and the rest for the White House.
For all the focus on AE’s Web-based infrastructure, Arno and his team have relied on thousands of paid signature gatherers to get the word out and help the organization secure a place on the November 2012 ballot. From late July to Labor Day, AE employees submitted 1.6 million signatures to the California Secretary of State’s office, which is still reviewing them. If the signatures pass muster, AE will have qualified for the presidential ballot in eight states. (Staff-collected signatures are also pending verification in Hawaii and Utah, and canvassers are gathering signatures in 18 other states. The remaining 22 states don’t allow signature-gathering campaigns to begin until Jan. 1.)
But who are the candidates, anyway?
I click on the “Candidates” button on the right side of AE’s navigation bar. I’m taken to a page that showcases AE’s provocative-question-with-refreshing-answer formula: “What if you could draft any qualified candidate who shares your views to run in 2012? As an Americans Elect delegate, you have the power to do just that.”
OK, but… still doesn’t answer my question. I read on.
“As a first step, soon you’ll be able to match with leading political figures, such as current and former presidential candidates, congresspeople, governors and business leaders.” It’s like Amazon.com’s “recommended for you” function, but for a president instead of a song.
It’s perhaps the most accurate way of predicting who AE delegates will gravitate toward, based on their priority issues and answers to policy questions. But it raises another question: Isn’t this allegedly revolutionary process steering us toward the very people who helped create the system we’re trying to defeat? And as Colbert asked Ackerman in his Aug. 10 interview, “What political party are you secretly backing?”
For a movement presenting itself as grassroots, Americans Elect has its fair share of big names with big bucks on board.
The startup funding – a cool $20 million – comes from founder Peter Ackerman’s FreshDirect.com fortune, and from 50 other initial donors, none of whom are named on the AE website nor readily disclosed by AE staff. (Their eventual goal is to repay that funding when smaller donors join on, with no individual giving more than $10,000. That means PACs and special-interest funding.)
The leadership list, posted on AE’s site, is full of familiar names: Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Mark McKinnon, former advisor to George W. Bush and John McCain; W. David Lawson, a top dog at J.P. Morgan Chase; and William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and CIA.
The rationale behind the recruitment of these power brokers is sound: They’ll legitimize AE as a force to be reckoned with while also providing expert advice gleaned from decades of experience in the corporate and political world.
But that rationale is alienating some searching for an alternative.
“Based on their past activities, I do not trust them to work toward my interests,” a member wrote on an AE message board Oct. 20. The refusal of AE’s leadership to open the bylaws to discussion by delegates – and to not even post the bylaws until a near-revolt by delegates in July – has also been a bone of contention.
“If AE's true intention was to give the power back to the people, they would certainly have been more open about the donor information… and the bylaws of the organization from the start,” wrote another message board member last month.
Arno says AE leadership is pushing its nearly 4,000 donors to publicly disclose their contributions, but many are unwilling to be linked to AE, either due to its nonexistent track record or their own ironic desire to maintain ties with powerful donkeys and elephants.
“What we’re hearing from donors is, ‘I'd love to help, but I do business with Republicans or Democrats, and I'm going to get destroyed for it,’” Arno says.
But Arno has faith that AE will overcome its own growing pains and the skepticism of the transparency doubters and those who see AE as 2012’s potential spoiler, a Ralph Nader-esque third-party ticket that siphons enough votes away from one mainstream candidate to hand the election to the other.
“If you talk to Republicans, they’re certain we will hand the election to Obama,” Arno says. “Talk to the Democrats, they’re certain we’ll hand it to Republicans.” But he and his colleagues aren’t out to alienate the two parties, he says.
“We just want to get people thinking about the political process,” Arno says. “If we tore it all down and built it back up again, would we do it the same? I don't think so. This is our chance to do things differently” – if they can rally the skeptics and get on the ballot.