What Will Americans Elect Do Now That It Can't Find a Candidate?

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The project to recruit a centrist third-party standard bearer appears to have fizzled. But it's unclear what happens in states where it's already on the ballot.

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Americans Elect via YouTube

As David Karpf wrote here 10 days ago, the Americans Elect third-party experiment of 2012 looks like it has hit a dead end. No declared candidate is anywhere close to hitting the group's requirement of earning 10,000 supporters across at least 10 states, with at least 1,000 from each state. Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer is the closest at just 5,840. He has less than 600 from California. As Jonathan Tilove points out in his story in the Times-Picayune, that means Roemer has more followers on Twitter than he has supporters who actually want him on AE's presidential ballot line.

Americans Elect had an ambitious plan to hold several rounds of online voting to winnow down what its leaders had hoped would be a competitive field of national candidates, and spent a reported $35 million circulating ballot petitions and building the organizational and online infrastructure to attract those candidates to its fold. It also attracted a fair amount of media coverage for its efforts, and encomia from the likes of Thomas Friedman, John Avlon, and Lawrence Lessig. But it never caught on, in part for the reasons I outlined almost a year ago: the lack of transparency about its finances, which made potential supporters distrustful (even spawning a watchdog blog called AETransparency), and the evident lack of public interest in its founders' evident desire to find a "centrist" candidate. It's possible that AE could have evolved differently, but that would have required that the vehicle be more genuinely controlled by its supporters, and that was an option that AE's leaders clearly didn't want to allow.

Before anyone sticks a fork in AE and says they're done, however, it's worth considering two little-noticed facts. The first is that in every state where AE has established a ballot line -- and now they've done so in about half the states -- now there's an open question about what will happen to that line. In theory, these state ballot lines should be controlled by state committees made up of local voters, who could act autonomously and use those lines for good or ill. When I asked Richard Winger, the longtime publisher of Ballot Access News and the country's leading authority on this topic, he told me, "In state after state, when I phone the state elections office and ask 'Who is state chair?' the person either says it is someone in Washington, D.C., or someone in California, or they say 'we don't know.'" He said this was surprising and unprecedented in his experience tracking how states deal with minor parties.

"It is incredible to me that so many states don't require a group that submits a petition to simultaneously (or earlier) submit a list of state officers," he told me. He added, "States have bent over backwards this year to accomodate AE. In Mississippi, a group qualifies as a party by submitting a list of state officers. There is no petition. It works fine and is a good model for other small states. But, incredibly, Mississippi let them list a state committee consisting of people who live outside Mississippi! They would not have let any other group do that."

The second fact to remember about AE is that these ballot lines don't expire in 2012. Many will be available in 2014, and Peter Ackerman, AE's founding father and key funder, has hinted in the past that he might be interested in recruiting a wave of AE congressional candidates. Considering that Congress is in need of major shake-up, that might not be such a bad idea. But the same issues of transparency and control will arise in 2014 -- assuming the national Americans Elect 501(c)4 organization continues to exist by then.

This article was first published at TechPresident.com.

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Micah L. Sifry is co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, which produces the annual Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident.com. He is the author or editor of six books, most recently Wikileaks and the Age of the Transparency, and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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