Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some questions for Americans Elect

Sandy Levinson

The LA Times has an intersting story about Americans Elect, Tom Friedman's new enthusiasm as the way to provide a third (or perhaps fourth, should the GOP nominate Mitt Romney) party. Its own web site is stunningly unilluminating. AE appears to speak in the language of hi-tech populism, whereby all of the self-apponted "delegates" will choose, on a one-person/one-vote basis, the party's nominee sometime in the spring or early summer of 2012. A remarkable number of questions are left hanging that need answering before others follow the effervescent Friedman into Americans Elect:

1) I will put to one side the question about who exactly is funding this operation and why. Will a third party appealing to "independents" be more likely to help or hurt Obama, for example, and, therefore, elect a Republican, inasmuch as it's wildly implausible to imagine the AE candidate winning an electoral college majority?

2) How, exactly, will the AE nominee be selected? Will it be first-past-the-post of votes received from the self-selected "delegates"? Will there be elaborate run-off schemes? Or will they adopt "approval voting" and run the person who is most widely "approved," even if that person comes in second or third in the horserace? There is, I think, much to be said for the use of "approval voting" in this context.

3) How will electors for the nominee be selected, since, as we all know, this great country of ours actually selects its presidents by using an indefensible originally pro-slavery scheme that rejects anything so simply as "direct election" of our Chief Executive? More to the point, will these electors be required to take a blood oath as to whom they will vote for if the AE candidate actually wins a state but not a majority. I have read that AE has said that if no candidate gets a majority (and, presumably, the AE candidate comes in third), then the AE electors will choose between one of the major party candidates in order to avoid the fiasco of having the rabid House of Representatives make the choice, on a one-state/one-vote basis. All fine and dandy, but

4 a) who will make the decision as to how the electors will vote, and if it's not the electors themselves (because, for example, there would be a new plebescite among AE "delegates") then b) what guarantees are there that the electors would "follow orders" if they believed that the "other" candidate should be elected instead of the one chosen by the self-appointed "delegates"?

5) And, of course, there is the ultimate problem that the AE seems concentrated entirely on the presidential election. So we would face the possibility, under the only half-way plausible "best case" for their venture, that their candidate would get the presidency by cobbling together a bare majority of the electoral college with, say, 36% of the overal popular vote and receiving a majority in no single state at all. Why would one regard that President as having any genuine political legitimacy, and why in the world would one expect a Congress that continues to be composed of political partisans to take that president seriously?

In any event, these are some immediate questions that occur to this "inquiring mind."


Some of these questions can probably be answered by looking through the publicly posted charter on the Nevada website. It appears that the answer to most of your questions is the Board of Directors appoints everyone and makes all the rules and submits the list of approved electors - this same Board votes for members of the Board to replace departed ones, appoints and dismisses all officers, sets all salaries, and is not beholden at all to anyone.

I'm not a lawyer, so I might be missing something. But for right now I am pretty sure it's just a clever new way for an elite group to wield outsized political control. So I guess it's a good fit with the other two.

The document (pdf):

Many thanks. If it as you describe, then "inquiring minds" should have even more reservations about Friedman's enthusiasm (unless he's a member of the apparently all-powerful Board of Directors.

This comment has been removed by the author.


AE electors must vote for the AE candidate only if he or she gains a plurality of the vote, but are otherwise committed to a major party candidate endorsed by AE convention delegates and not the people choosing the AE candidate on the internet.

Given that an AE candidate is highly unlikely to win a plurality, this rule is really meant to swing Indi votes by stealth from the AE nominee to the AE establishment's favored GOP or far more likely Dem candidate.

Given that Indis have broken heavily against the Dems since 2009, I would very much like to know who is financing and running AE.

Well, the organizational papers indicate that the chairman is CEO, basically in control of the org, and the chairman happens to be one Peter Ackerman, a billionaire, so I'd guess he's also the source of funds. I'm unclear about his politics.

If it is an operation in support of one of the major parties, (Usually a safe bet when a 'third party' springs out of nowhere full formed, with mysterious funding.) I'd guess it's in support of the Dems, given the fact that the independents seem to be trending Republican at the moment, meaning they have more to lose from a false flag 'third party'.

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Google is a truly wonderful thing.

Peter Ackerman appears to be a Dem and an Obama supporter.

Ackerman is a member of Rockport Capital, a "green tech venture capital" firm that almost certainly makes its money off of investing in government subsidized projects. Obama has massively increased this funding by well over $100 billion and many GOP presidential candidates seek to reverse these subsidies, which would not do Rockport Capital any favors. Crony capitalism.

At the same time he was running Unity 08 - a previous incarnation of AE - Ackerman was donating to the Obama Campaign. One guess who will be AE's alternate candidate.

Peter Ackerman may well be a Democrat (assuming Google is correct), but it is almost literally insane to believe that AE is designed to help Obama, given the insanity of our first-past-the-post system which would allow a Republican to win the electoral votes of a given state simply by coming in first in a multi-candidate race (remember Florida). Telling independents that they can vote for the AE candidate in reliance that they are "really" voting for Obama is an idiotic strategy. If they're not running a candidate they think can plausibly win--hello, former General Petraeus--then their venture makes no sense other than political narcissism a la Ralph Nader.


The requirement for AE electors to go to the major party candidate chosen by the AE delegates rather than the AE internet primary voters if the AE candidate cannot achieve a plurality of the vote raises two interesting issues:

1) In a first past the post state electoral system, is the GOP candidate with 45% of the state popular vote or is Obama with 38% of those who voted for him and 17% of the referred AE electors first past the post? AE apparently thinks the latter of the vote shifting rule makes no sense.

2) AE is not telling the internet primary voters their votes for an AE candidate can be shifted to a major party candidate. We did not learn this until studying the AE bylaws. Thus, AE is not "telling independents that they can vote for the AE candidate in reliance that they are "really" voting for Obama." Rather this system stinks as a bait and switch proposition where you lure Indis who increasingly dislike both parties, but dislike Obama and the Dems more, to vote for an AE candidate without telling them their votes will go to Obama when the AE candidate fails.

Vote shifting is utterly unacceptable. No one should support AE because of that alone.

We'll be hearing a lot more about Americans Elect -- and other efforts designed to provide voters with more than two choices. Of course we then need to look at how best to change a system designed for only two choices.

Sandy's passing reference to Americans Elect possibly using approval voting in its nomination process made me want to flag our recent analysis posted at

For reasons involving vulnerability to strategic voting, I would caution against it. I could see it being useful in some kind of winning vote or a "snapshot" of where candidates stand. But the more decisive the vote becomes, the more problematic approval voting is as a system.

The alternative to plurality voting really boil down to the tested methods of traditional runoff elections, instant runoff voting and, for legislative elections, forms of proportional voting. Condorcet methods are interesting, but a tough sell and something that should be tried out a lot more at a local level before higher level office.

I very much appreciate Rob Ritchie's valuable post. I completely agree with him that something other than first-past-the-post is necessary. He may be right that approval voting is flawed--almost by definition it has a built-in bias toward acceptably bland candidates instead of visionary leaders who, almost by definition, generate opposition. I take it that both of us agree that Americans Elect has a lot of explaining to do before one should follow Friedman potentially over the cliff.

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Sandy, your intuition led you in the right direction when you were considering Approval Voting. It's good for a variety of reasons:
- No vote splitting
- Elects Centrist candidates
- Voters can always choose their favorite
- Super simple

For more on Approval Voting, this is a good link to check out:

And considering that Americans Elect wants to nominate a centrist candidate, this is an excellent choice.

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Given that an AE selection is unlikely to win a plurality, this procedure is really used to move Indi ballots by turn invisible from the AE nominee to the AE establishment's popular GOP or far more likely Dem selection
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