TOPICS > Politics

‘Americans Elect’ Group Challenges U.S. Presidential Primary Process

August 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
A nonprofit organization called Americans Elect is aiming to host an online national political convention and upend the way candidates are nominated for the U.S. presidency. Judy Woodruff reports on the latest attempt to push American politics away from a system dominated by two parties.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: to presidential politics here at home and one group’s effort to upend the way candidates for the Oval Office are nominated.

Judy Woodruff brings us the latest attempt to push America away from the dominant two-party system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No third-party candidate has won a U.S. presidential election since 1860.

But with unemployment staying high, worries about another recession, and mounting public disapproval of Democrats and Republicans alike, could voters be frustrated enough with Washington to upend the way they select their president in 2012?

Well, one new group thinks so. Americans Elect is a nonprofit organization that wants to change the nominating process by holding the first ever nonpartisan political convention in cyberspace. Voters can weigh in on their top issues and use an online voting system to nominate a candidate to place on the presidential ballot in all 50 states.

Well, for more on the effort, we’re joined now by Elliot Ackerman. He’s chief operating officer for Americans Elect and a decorated veteran of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. And former Clinton adviser and Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen, he sits on the group’s board of advisers.

And it’s great to have you both.

DOUGLAS SCHOEN, Democratic pollster: Thank you so much.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN, Americans Elect: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elliot Ackerman, to you first. Our political parties have been around since the birth of the country, practically. We have a stable system of government. Why circumvent them?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well, I think what’s important to realize is, this isn’t another political party. This isn’t a third party. This is a second nominating process.

And the vision here is that, in November of 2012, when American voters go to the poll, there will be a third ticket that they have directly nominated themselves.

So, at Americans Elect, we will be holding the first ever nonpartisan online nominating convention. Any registered voter can be a delegate to that convention. And the ticket that comes out of the convention is going to be on the ballot in all 50 states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Doug Schoen, it’s not a third party, you’re saying.

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s a process that would circumvent the party. What is it about the two political parties that makes you think you can get around them?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, if you look at the polls, Judy, you see that there are record levels of disapproval with both parties, with Congress, with institutions generally.

And what we have seen in our research is that solid majorities of the American people support the idea of an online nominating convention and support the idea of offering people a choice and to give them a voice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Elliot Ackerman, how would it work? I mean, how do you nominate somebody online? How does that work?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Right.

Well, what we’re seeing here is, there’s the obvious technological innovations that are occurring with the website. There’s also a real political innovation that’s occurring. And that is, this is the first time there will be 50-state ballot access for a ticket to be directly nominated by the American people.

So, when you come to AmericansElect.org and become a delegate, you will be interacting in a process that is flattening our political system. And we’re taking what have traditionally been the functions of the parties and we’re making them the functions of the delegates.

So, as a delegate, you can draft a candidate, you can help develop a platform of questions the candidates have to answer. And you can also be involved with the discussion and debate surrounding the rules of the convention, so ultimately taking party functions and making them delegate functions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re collecting signatures, Doug Schoen, all over, in all 50 states in order to get on the ballot.

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is that going so far?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, it’s going extremely well.

I can tell you that there are I think 21 states that we’re going to work on this year — 29 allow us to work next year. But we have gotten 1.6 million in California. We are getting record levels of response from people who are just fed up, Judy, with the two parties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, I read that you are having to pay people to collect signatures. Is that the case, and, if so, why?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well, that’s the way things have been done for years. But let’s — to focus specifically on how people are coming out, what’s going on in California.

The people of California have shown up in record numbers for this. So to give you a sense of it, the 1.6 million signatures that we have gathered in California, that’s basically 10 percent of the individuals who participated in the last gubernatorial race. And it makes it the largest signature gathering initiative in the history of that state and we believe, from all indications, the history of the country.

So this can’t be done unless the people of California want it to be done. And we’re seeing a huge appetite for this nationwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you getting a sense, Doug Schoen, of what it is that people want from a candidate that might come out of this process?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: They want a number of things.

First, they want compromise and conciliation. They’re fed up and frustrated with a partisan divisiveness that they don’t understand and they feel isn’t addressing their problems. Second, they want a process that involves them in picking a president that’s not really controlled by political leaders or political bosses.

And, third, they want to understand that the duopoly that the two major parties have had over the system, what you called in your introduction, quite rightly, the stability of the system, is shaken up, because it’s not solving our problems and it’s not addressing the needs that people feel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have been doing some reading about what you’re doing. There is some suspicion out there that this is a stalking horse for a particular candidate.

How do you guarantee to people watching this, reading about this that you don’t have a particular candidate in mind, that this is truly open?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Americans Elect is about two things. It’s about providing ballot access for a ticket to be directly nominated by the American people. That’s all that’s going on here. We need people to get involved.

Becoming a delegate of Americans Elect is a serious endeavor. And we have the president of the United States himself saying our politics is dysfunctional. The genius of our country is the fact that the last self-correcting measure we have is the American people. At Americans Elect, the spirit of Americans Elect is to give the people the power to self-correct our politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms of doing this online, your nominating — your convention would be in cyberspace, in effect.

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: That’s right.

And, you know, we have polled it. About 25 to 30 percent of the potential eligibles have said they’re interested in the process. They want to learn more about it. They want to communicate. They want to share their preferences on issues, because, as I think Elliot was beginning to say, we give, through Americans Elect, the chance for people to be heard, what their issue preferences are, so that an online platform can be developed. And, ultimately, people will have a chance to participate in a convention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I have read by way of criticism is that you have not yet revealed who your funders are. Is that correct, and, if so, why not?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Well, the choice of the funders is on them to donate — or to disclose. And we hope that all of them will. And the vision is that Americans Elect will be wholly funded by small donations online.

And let’s talk about what they’re funding. They’re funding ballot access in all 50 states and the infrastructure, by way of a website, for the American people to be able to come and make this thing their own. We need the American people to join Americans Elect and have their voice be heard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that’s something you intend to do?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, it is.

And the other thing is, there’s no special interest here. This is a process that opens up the process. The delegates will determine the platform and who the nominee is. So, anyone who is supporting the organization is supporting openness, not a special interest, not a candidate, or not a cause.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What happens now? I mean, you’re out in — in all 50 states, is that right, right now trying to get on the ballot?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: The ballot access laws in this country — and, in many ways, they restrict us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can’t start until a certain date.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We’re not — and they’re somewhat — and they’re somewhat random. In 29 states, we have to circulate in 2011. And in the other states, we can’t circulate until 2012.

We’re going as fast as we can possibly go with achieving ballot access. And we’re seeing folks come out in large numbers for it. So those operations are going on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And looking into the fall, in the next couple of months, Doug Schoen, what — what will be a public indication of how well you’re doing? I mean, will you be revealing how many people have signed the petition, or what?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, we’re getting a phenomenal number of hits and expressions of interest on the website. This is really just starting.

I think we have been gratified since we began communicating publicly about what we’re doing with the really tens of thousands of people who have registered interest. What we’re really doing, Judy, is going on programs like this, talking to the American people in open meetings and private discussions to share what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and to make it clear that there is a different way and an alternative approach to nominating and electing a president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re delighted to have you both. And we will be watching your progress as the weeks and months go by.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thanks for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doug Schoen, Elliot Ackerman, thank you both.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: Thank you, Judy.