Facebook-Style Elections for U.S. President: Could It Work?

After the 2011 deficit crisis, in which a failure of Congress to come to a resolution led to the first-ever S&P credit downgrade of the United States Treasury, one man decided he’d had enough with Washington and its partisan, uncooperative politicians. David H. Freedman, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Wired writes that abandoning the idea of democracy as “government by the people” has given way to the present gridlock in Washington. Third-party presidential candidates haven’t won a single state in the electoral college for decades, but there have been recent efforts to change that. Freedman writes in Discover:

For a brief, shining moment last spring, it seemed as if that revolutionary concept might take hold in the United States. Americans Elect, founded and initially bankrolled by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Ackerman, launched plans to create a virtual third party via a nomination process that would take place primarily online. By culling centrist candidates from both U.S. parties, it would defuse the extremism that makes governing the country so difficult. At least that was the theory. In reality, so few of Americans Elect’s delegates bothered to participate that by May the party gave up on playing a role in the 2012 election.

But that does not mean an online party can’t work. A number of experts contend that in spite of some real roadblocks, virtual parties are likely to gain greater traction in the coming decade. Hans Klein, who researches online democracy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notes that the online election model works in the high-profile global selection of board members for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization that controls web domain names. Why not apply it to national politics and to the formation and operation of political parties? “It’s a lot easier to find people with collective interests and to sign them up and count their opinions online,” Klein says. [1]

Freedman’s interest in online voting stems from his skepticism of established regimes—including those in national politics. In his book Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us, Freedman argues against our dependency on agencies and so-called “experts” who have time and again disappointed our country and in part caused national problems such as the 2008 financial crisis and America’s obesity epidemic. In this case, he proposes an online alternative to the two-party primary system in the United States, which gives a few thousand voters in states like New Hampshire and Iowa disproportionate influence over the presidential race. A fairer way to run elections, Freedman proposes, would be to move primaries online:

Such a turn toward open-source politics could help re-democratize democracy, argues Joshua S. Levine, the former chief technology officer of Americans Elect. In particular, the online world offers a way to bypass the byzantine nomination process for online and traditional parties alike, replacing it with a system that makes people more likely to weigh in, to make informed decisions, and to end up with a candidate who genuinely represents their viewpoints. “My parents voted by picking one of the two parties and then agreeing with whatever it decided,” Levine says. “But because of the online world, people are much more granular today in their choices.”

Levine foresees an online nomination process that requires candidates to answer multiple-choice questions on a range of issues—and then graphically shows each voter how the candidates’ stances match up to the voter’s own, as measured by the same questionnaire. Throw in videos of the candidates explaining their positions, along with biographical material, and voters will have a clear picture of the field that cuts through the noise of attack ads and the 24-hour news cycle. Then they can go straight to a “vote” page and render their verdict. “Today people walk into a voting booth and see 10 candidates’ names, and they might not have a clue about their positions,” Levine says. “Online they can vote with the research right in front of them.”

Online elections could make voters’ choices more informed and influential than ever before. The only major roadblock would be verifying voters’ identities. But even for that problem, Freedman argues that our current Internet technology is sophisticated enough to maintain security and prevent vote fraud. But the leading online voter initiative, Americans Elect, ultimately failed in its efforts to influence the current presidential race:

Certainly the virtual party got off to a promising start: It raised $35 million, signed up 400,000 “delegates,” and spent some $15 million to gather the physical signatures needed to place its presidential candidate on most states’ ballots. Yet the effort to ignite voter interest fell flat. In May the party had to cancel its first planned round of online voting because no candidates could muster a mere 1,000 Facebook-style “likes” from each of 10 states, a requirement for making it to the voting rounds. The top-ranking declared candidate was former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who had a bit more than 6,000 clicks of support across the entire United States—about one-eighth as many nods as Jon Huntsman, the worst-performing mainstream Republican candidate, received in the New Hampshire primary…

[T]he current political system is designed by the major parties to ensure that upstart groups struggle to gain a foothold, asserts Darrell West, of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. “The political barriers are much greater than the technological ones when it comes to establishing a third party,” West says. “The key to having a viable campaign is to get into the televised debates, but getting in requires polling at 5 to 15 percent in national major polls. And even with the Internet, that can’t happen without attention from the national media, and they treat third parties as curiosities.”

Despite these political obstacles, Freedman notes that some of the country’s most successful political movements in fact began online: the Tea Party first organized online and the Occupy Wall Street movement began with a blog post. Even if these parties didn’t make it onto ballots, both of these groups attracted national attention and strongly influenced Washington’s major political parties to change their economic policies. Online voting could be similarly influential, even if a third-party president isn’t likely in the near future.


[1] “Can Facebook-Style Elections Produce Candidates We Actually “Like”?” David H. Freedman, Discover

Image via
Discover and iStockphoto

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