Feuding between Democratic and Republican leaders has rendered the U.S. government nearly dysfunctional, with the summer 2011 deficit standoff only the most egregious recent example of gridlock run amok. As growing numbers of Americans say they are fed up with both parties, the door would seem open for an alternative. Historically, third parties have failed miserably: Ross Perot, the most successful independent presidential candidate in modern times, did not win a single state
in 1992. Technology is changing the electoral rules, though, inspiring reformers to envision a new and more open brand of politics, one built around online voting and Facebook-style campaigns.
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.
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.”
Equally important, online voting could improve on the current primary process, that peculiar patchwork of staggered state elections that typically suffer from low voter turnout. Candidates have to tailor their messages to small numbers of voters in the early primaries, so a few thousand people in New Hampshire and a handful of other states have a disproportionate influence on the direction of the presidential race. Voters in states whose primaries come later often have no real say in the selection.
A much fairer way to pick candidates, Levine says, would be to hold a series of national primaries that narrow the field as views about the candidates evolve and coalesce. That would be out of the question using today’s voting system, given how hard it is to get voters to the polls for a primary. Conducting primaries online could make voting convenient enough to lift the participation rate—and digital voting would make it easier to find information needed to make an informed decision.