Sragow: Americans Elect: A More Democratic Alternative

Earlier I invited Darry Sragow of Americans Elect to write a response to my Politico oped, “A Democracy Deficit at Americans Elect.”  He has sent along the following response, which I am reprinting in its entirety (click the to read the entire piece).

Americans Elect: A More Democratic Alternative

By Darry Sragow

We’d like to begin by thanking Professor Hasen for the opportunity to post to this blog, and for his willingness to engage in a dialogue with us about the Americans Elect process.

Next summer we’ll host a secure, nonpartisan online convention to let the American people directly nominate a presidential candidate for the first time in American history. The nominee will be on the ballot in all 50 states. Successfully executing a monumental task like this requires a collaboration of the best minds available, so we appreciate Professor Hasen’s comments and welcome his critical eye. We believe that tough questions can only help us clarify our mission, improve our process, and help political insiders and the American electorate understand the incredible potential of this historic opportunity.

Professor Hasen’s critique of Americans Elect addresses four essential issues: the democracy of our process; the validity of our nonprofit status; the security and reliability of our online convention; and the source of our funding.

Let’s address each of these issues in order.

Giving All American Voters a True Choice

We don’t pretend that the Americans Elect process is perfect. That’s why we’ll soon open a forum on our site where our delegates can discuss the draft rules, and propose changes. But we do believe that to evaluate our process fairly, it should be measured against the status quo.

For the past year, a small group of Democratic and Republican party leaders and media elites has been narrowing the field of presidential candidates, long before a single American has had the chance to vote. And once voting begins, the decision will essentially be up to the select few who participate in politics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Most Americans have little say in choosing our presidential candidates. That is the status quo, and it is not democratic.

There are now more than 310,000 Americans Elect delegates across the country, more than double the number of people who voted in the 2008 Iowa GOP caucus, which effectively ended Mitt Romney’s campaign. With Americans Elect, every single American has not only a say, but an equal say, regardless of his or her state residency or party affiliation.

Americans understand that they’re increasingly disenfranchised. The resulting anger has been manifested by the emergence of movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy groups across the country. One of the things that sets Americans Elect apart is that we’re offering a tangible solution capable of effecting real change.

But that difference comes with its challenges. We want results. This isn’t a think tank. We  have no interest in keeping our proposed solutions in the realm of the theoretical. We’re idealistic, but also pragmatic.

So we’ve created a system open equally to all, that will produce a credible candidate capable of winning, or certainly having an impact in, the general election.

In obvious contrast to the major parties, we allow any registered voter to be a delegate to our convention, and any of our delegates to nominate a candidate. Our delegates work to improve our rules and shape our Platform of Questions, a vital document that all candidates will be required to answer.

In the 235 years of our country’s history, rank-and-file American voters have never before possessed these powers.

And to make sure that these powers produce maximum impact, our Candidate Certification Committee vets all candidates. We’ll offer voters a set of credible candidates, with qualifications similar to those possessed by past presidents. Absent this process, the result could easily mimic the 2003 California Gubernatorial Recall Election, which attracted candidates including former child star Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey, and catapulted a Hollywood action figure into office.

The problems facing our country and the current lack of faith in the political process are too serious for a similar circus. American voters deserve better choices.

Contrary to the candidate vetting conducted by the major parties, ours is done in the open, and the Candidate Certification Committee’s decisions can be overruled by a two-thirds vote of our delegates. We’re also in the process of amending our rules in response to valuable input provided by our delegates, Professor Hasen, and others, and anticipate several rounds of revisions in the new year.

We have a Board of Directors who help oversee our process, which Professor Hasen correctly points out is self-appointed. While we don’t mean to put the board in the company of the Founding Fathers, we’d point out that nobody picked the Founding Fathers, either. They took it upon themselves to turn a popular dream into a shared reality. And they, too, had debates over how much control should be centralized. They knew that too much power in the hands of too few isn’t real democracy, but that power too diffuse is anarchy.

Had the Founding Fathers had access to today’s technology, perhaps they would have created a system as democratic as the one we’re creating at Americans Elect. As it is, thanks to the Electoral College, in the 2008 presidential election, the vote of one Wyoming resident carried nearly three times more weight than the vote of one California resident. In the Americans Elect nominating process, every vote counts equally.

It’s true that our board retains certain fail-safes, to ensure that this totally new process can be executed fairly. For instance, if the independent auditor who checks our results believes a vote has been compromised, the board may order a revote. (More on how we’ll know a vote is faulty in a moment.)

Our board has no power in the most important decision of all – the selection of the nominee. Indeed, that decision is solely in the hands of our delegates – the American people.

As former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith said in a recent piece in response to Professor Hasen, “Compared to the Democratic or Republican National Committees, Americans Elect seems to have established a remarkably open process for members to voice their opinions and select candidates who agree with the majority of those opinions, at least as much as is ever possible in politics.”

We understand the inclination to speculate about what could happen if the board’s powers were abused. But we also ask you to consider what would happen if those powers didn’t exist. And we ask you to consider the devastating effect that any abuse of power would have on our delegates’ involvement. We cannot succeed in our mission without a broad base of popular participation. If we alienate our delegates and they jump ship, we will fail.

So in the end, the board answers to them.

Some people tell us that we’re crazy for creating a process that gives our delegates so much power. Others suggest we haven’t given our delegates enough. We hope the fact that we’ve received both criticisms is a sign that we’ve gotten it pretty close to right.

Breaking the Paralyzing Political Gridlock

Americans Elect takes no position on any candidate or issue. We simply provide a process, and candidates, delegate-led draft efforts and voters provide the rest.

As part of our process, we require each presidential candidate to pick a running mate from a party other than his or her own. Some express concerns that this policy could be used to weed out certain candidates and foist the AE board’s predetermined choice on the populace. However, our bylaws clearly state:

Board members shall not communicate or act in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for President or Vice President at any time before the adjournment of the online nominating convention of Americans Elect.

We’d also point out that decisions on whether a candidate has a “balanced ticket” can be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the delegates, and that any apparent abuse of power would send our all-important delegates running for the exits.

Others have argued that the balanced ticket policy equates to a political agenda. Professor Hasen writes, “[AE COO] Elliot Ackerman told The Christian Science Monitor that the committee will allow only a ‘centrist’ candidate to be chosen.”

This quote incorrectly suggests that Ackerman used the word centrist, when in fact it was The Christian Science Monitor’s choice to use that word.

What the American people crave is not just centrism, but, even more fundamentally, stable solutions to the problems facing our nation. And stable solutions require collaboration, compromise and consensus.

Offering a third, balanced ticket serves the public good. If voters want a ticket comprised of two Republicans or two Democrats, those options exist. But when candidates pick running mates from outside their parties, it’s a clear sign that they’re working to build the consensus necessary to get things done, and that they will govern without undue regard to the partisan interests of either major party. What’s noteworthy is not that we’re requiring a bipartisan ticket, it’s that we’re allowing it.

In 2008, the Republicans barred John McCain from picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate. In 2004, the Democrats stopped John Kerry from asking McCain. This despite the fact that American voters showed strong interest in those tickets. But that is the status quo, and it is neither democratic, nor what the people want.

It’s true that, because of ballot access laws in some states, we are forced to register as a “political party” or a “political minor party” to get on the ballot. The fact that we have done so is not a sign of some hidden agenda on our part, but of a concerted effort by the Republicans and Democrats to shut out competition. Ballot access laws across the country are grossly distorted in their favor, to the detriment of the American people.

One small example: In California, a bastion of direct democracy, it takes the signatures of roughly 500,000 voters to place a proposed law on the ballot and 800,000 to amend the State Constitution, but more than one million to qualify as a political party and offer Californians competition in the political marketplace.

Therein lies one of the great challenges and great ironies of Americans Elect: We’re forced to fight within the confines of a closed and broken system in order to fix it.

A Secure Convention

Security is of paramount importance to us. We don’t endorse Internet voting for a general election, but we do believe it’s secure and reliable for a caucus like ours. Our site already incorporates bank-level security, and as we get closer to our first ballots next spring, the level of authentication required to participate will increase substantially. We do not store any personal information, and are working with TrustE and MacAfee to ensure privacy and security.

All delegates can print paper receipts of their votes, so an independent audit committee can manually confirm results.

Funding the Political Change Americans Want to See

In 2008, the parties and special interests spent billions promoting their choices for president. It is going to take about $30 million for the American people to finally be able to promote their own choice.

About 50 percent of that budget goes to signature gathering and legal costs to get on the ballot in all 50 states. About 35 percent goes to building the website. About 15 percent goes to operations. That’s it. None of it goes to support candidates or issues. That part is up to our delegates.

The people who provided the seed money to get us started come from across the political spectrum. They share a deep concern about our country’s broken political system, and a strong desire to do something about it. But they also know that it’s hard being among the first to publicly support something that challenges an entrenched and powerful establishment.

Professor Hasen expresses skepticism in this regard, writing, “There is virtually no evidence that contributors to candidates or parties face harassment these days because of their contributions.”

Oh, please. Cross those who hold power and you are banished to political Siberia, or targeted not by the Molotov cocktails conjured up by the professor, but by unresponsive or hostile government actions.

In fact, we believe that the paralysis brought about by the rise of hyperpartisanship is the best possible evidence of how highly the two parties value loyalty. You don’t keep such tight control on your members without punishing those who stray.

Truth is, we can’t wait for the day when our funders will brag about their involvement with Americans Elect. But right now, the very reason they won’t is the very reason we exist. The two parties have a multi-billion dollar interest in maintaining the status quo, and breaking their monopoly means going up against some of the most powerful interests in the world.

All our funders—large and small—are free to disclose their donations to the public at any time, and we encourage them to do so. But they aren’t required to disclose, and we won’t force them to.

Giving to Americans Elect buys you no special influence whatsoever, and all donors acknowledge that fact when they contribute.

None of the money contributed to Americans Elect is used to support a candidate, candidate committee, political party, or issue. We accept money only from individuals. No money is accepted from candidates, candidate committees, political parties, special interests, corporations, PACs, lobbyists, unions, or foreign sources. All of our declared candidates are required to file with the Federal Elections Commission and follow the same disclosure rules that the major party candidates follow.

No Americans Elect funds will be used to support our ticket even once one is chosen. It will be up to the AE candidate to fund his or her own campaign.

And that’s not just our policy. It’s the law. Because we’re a nonprofit, we’re not allowed to advocate for candidates or issues, so we don’t and never will.

Like most Americans, we believe our country is in some trouble. Americans Elect is a serious effort to help find a way out. We know it might not be perfect and we appreciate Professor Hasen’s and others’ concerns and suggestions. But our plea to them is this: In times of trouble, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If you’re still skeptical, that’s fine. We’re confident that as this process unfolds, our actions will show how seriously we take our stated mission, and you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

Of course, the ultimate judge will be the American people. If Americans want to vote for the AE ticket, they will. If, for whatever reason, they don’t, they won’t.

Participation as a delegate in Americans Elect is a low risk, high reward proposition. Any registered voter can still vote in his or her party’s primary and can still vote for a major party candidate in the general election in 2012. We’re really just asking for their time and consideration. In exchange, the American people gain unprecedented power in our political system.

If it turns out we’re a shady front group with an ulterior motive then when that becomes apparent, voters can kick us to the curb and choose one of the major party candidates in November.

Of course that’s not who we are, and we’re confident that voters will reach that conclusion on their own. When that happens, millions of Americans will be glad they took this opportunity to be one of the innovators who restored competition and openness to American politics, and made their voices heard.

Darry Sragow is political director of Americans Elect and teaches election law at USC, where he assigns Richard Hasen’s case book to his students.

 

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