Lessons from the Crash of Americans Elect

As expected, today Americans Elect announced the suspension of their online caucuses.  A weekend of cyber-GOTV from Buddy Roemer only rounded up a few hundred more supporters, leaving him several thousand shy of the 10,000-person minimum threshold.  No other declared candidate was anywhere close.

Micah Sifry notes that there will be lingering questions about what happens with their ballot slots.  Centrist author and longtime AE supporter John Avlon holds out hope that Americans Elect will drum up a “credible, balanced ticket”  from somewhere.  We’ll know more by the end of the week about what the next step for Americans Elect is.  This likely isn’t the last we’ll hear from the organization.

I want to focus on the explanations Avlon gives for Americans Elect, then offer up one key point that continues to get under my skin.  Avlon entertains three explanations for Americans Elect’s basic lack of turnout:

-Third-party candidacies tend to do best when there is not an incumbent on the ballot.

-The Republican primary dragged on.  Mitt Romney is less of an extremist than Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.

-Ballot security protocols on the AE website were a real chore, creating a genuine challenge to delegate voting.  Avlon writes “In an era of slacktivists used to ‘liking’ something and quickly moving on, this was a serious hurdle.”

There is a little truth to each of the explanations.  Perot and Nader were both more effective when running in elections that lacked an incumbent (though John Anderson in 1980 did better than Nader, while running against incumbent Jimmy Carter).  The bigger issue, which he appears loathe to admit, is that Barack Obama has governed as a centrist.  It’s probably true that if, say, Gingrich had locked up the nomination, there would have been more force behind potential third-party candidacies.  But that’s the reason why Republican party elites mobilized so heavily to prevent that from happening.  And indeed, if you make voting in an online caucus practically as difficult as voting in a real primary, you shouldn’t expect higher turnout  The slacktivism comment is a lazy cheap shot, though.

Avlon goes on to claim “the decision to at least consider a path forward with a bipartisan ticket in 2012 reflects the enthusiasms of the delegates and volunteers.”  This is nothing but wishful thinking. If Americans Elect had delegate or volunteer enthusiasm, it wouldn’t be in this mess.  There is no radical center.  You can buy ballot access in 26 states (you just pay people to gather petition signatures).  But you can’t buy volunteer enthusiasm.

The frustrating thing about Avlon shows up in his conclusion: “Americans Elect may be an idea ahead of its time, but…”  What evidence, if any, would convince writers like Avlon and Thomas Friedman that their faith in the radical center is misplaced?  As I’ve written previously, AE is not an idea ahead of its time; it is a gimmick based on magical thinking about technology!

The problem with all of this isn’t Avlon himself.  He’s welcome to write theoretically-misguided centrist pieces for the Daily Beast.  Our current media environment isn’t exactly plagued by an overabundance of centrists.  The problem shows up when well-meaning big donors spend a ton of money repeatedly tilting at windmills like AE.

Americans Elect had a budget of between $35 and $40 million dollars over the past two years.  Much of that was donated by centrists interested in reforming the two party system.  That’s 30 or 40 times larger than the annual budget of FairVote.org/The Center for Voting and Democracy (<$500,000 per year).  FairVote is the leading electoral reform organization in America.  It has been running a promising state-based campaign for the National Popular Vote for years, and is well-respected among researchers who conduct electoral systems research.  I imagine that FairVote with a 40-fold increase in their budget could probably find a better use for the money than building a third-party candidacy for a yet-to-be-named candidate.

And there’s the danger.  Observers have the opportunity to learn a lesson from the AE debacle.  We could learn something about how electoral processes operate (*cough* Duverger’s Law *cough*).  We could learn something about where and when the Internet is useful to communities-of-interest.  We could learn something about online political organizing.  Or we could chalk it up to “an idea ahead of its time” and make the same bland mistakes in the next electoral cycle.  In the meantime, more worthwhile ideas and organizations go underfunded.  That renders meaningful social/political change ever more elusive as a result.

The next time someone suggests that the Internet has paved the way for the overthrow of the two-party system, hopefully you’ll remember American’s Elect and cast them a withering glare.

 

 

One thought on “Lessons from the Crash of Americans Elect

  1. “Americans Elect had a budget of between $35 and $40 million dollars over the past two years. Much of that was donated by centrists interested in reforming the two party system. That’s 30 or 40 times larger than the annual budget of FairVote.org/The Center for Voting and Democracy (<$500,000 per year). FairVote is the leading electoral reform organization in America. It has been running a promising state-based campaign for the National Popular Vote for years, and is well-respected among researchers who conduct electoral systems research. I imagine that FairVote with a 40-fold increase in their budget could probably find a better use for the money than building a third-party candidacy for a yet-to-be-named candidate."

    Yes, well, that's assuming that Americans Elect was a good-faith effort at electoral reform and not an exercise in narcissism and nepotism, engineered in large part to funnel money to consultants. Or am I being too cynical?

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