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Pick a President

As Sarah Palin speaks of being drafted, Americans Elect offers another choice at SXSW

Austin Photo: News_Kevin_americans elect_march 2012

If you happened to be listening to the NBC Today show the other day you heard the "L" word for the first time this election season, and the word came from a Republican. The word was "landslide."

Republican political veteran Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, warned the Republican Party that a donkey landslide is in the making if the elephants don't get their trunks out of racing to see who can be the farthest right.

The republican problem is so deep there is actually serious discussion about drafting Sarah Palin during the Republican National Convention. When Sarah Palin is being offered as the savior of the party, using the "L" word becomes natural for democrats who wait patiently, licking their chops eager to chew up whoever comes out as the Republican lamb for the slaughter. Perhaps they fail to recognize (yet) their own failings while in power, an issue republicans are anxious to begin pointing out.

2012 is already home to one of the most negative, disgusting political campaigns in modern history, and the Democrats haven't even entered it yet. Add billions of campaign dollars to the mix, as most certainly will be spent by the presidential candidates, and you have a bloodbath of misinformation, misquoted facts, intimidation and downright lies. Such is the American way of electing our leaders.

 "It's an experiment. It's working outside the system to break the stranglehold of the two parties." 

"The money has just gone completely mad and has become pornographic," says former George W. Bush political strategist Mark McKinnon. "There’s never been a time that it's been as hyper-partisan as it is today; and uncivilized, and the hyper-partisanship has just completely poisoned the well in Washington today and it’s paralyzed the system."

McKinnon argues that the money and the monopoly created by a two-party political system has ground American government to a halt. 

At SXSW, a fledgling political speed bump called Americans Elect is suggesting a new way of electing our leaders. Sure, we've tried third-party candidates before, and generally we know that third-party candidates always come in third. Still, Americans Elect, a SXSW Interactive Award finalist this year, thinks it has an idea that just might work.

"What we're finding in our research and polling is that millions of people are looking aggressively for anther choice," says Americans Elect CEO Kahlil Byrd. “If you change the way you nominate, you can change the way leaders govern."

Americans Elect has a high profile at SXSW Interactive. Byrd, along with Chief Technology Officer Joshua Levine, led a SXSW panel Sunday, and Americans Elect is hosting a registrant's lounge in the Austin Convention Center, staying on hand to answer questions and generally raise the visibility of their cause.

"Americans Elect is not a party," says Ileana Wachtel, the organization's National Press Secretary. "We are a vehicle to gain ballot access and engage the American public."

That vehicle is a website: An online crowd-sourcing platform for nominating a candidate who will run under the Americans Elect banner.

"It's an experiment," explains McKinnon who serves on AE's Board of Advisors. "It's working outside the system to break the stranglehold of the two parties."

"AmericansElect.org is the combination of two very simple ideas," says Byrd. "First, breaking down barriers to entry. And the only barrier to entry for running for President of the United States is getting on the ballot in all 50 states, an effort that is costing this organization $15 million. And [second], opening up and reimagining the way we nominate our leaders."

Americanselect.org launched on July 4, 2011 under the tagline "Pick a President, Not a Party."

It now boasts ballot access in 17 states with 13 more pending (they say certification in those 13 is assured and will come in a short time). That leaves 20 more states, all of which have rules prohibiting even starting the ballot petition process until now. To run for president and win, a candidate must be approved on the ballots of all 50 states. It is grueling and expensive (not surprisingly because it was put together by Republicans and Democrats).

"Our biggest challenge is going from zero users last July to millions of users this coming June," says Levine. "This is a first and everyone is watching."

 "People are used to picking candidates based upon the label, red or blue, whatever. Americans Elect will nominate based on issues and interests." 

It works like this. You register on the Americans Elect website and answer 18 questions about yourself and your position on various issues. So far over two million people have done so. The site then matches you up with other registrants who share your position. You can choose delegates to represent you, over 400,000 delegates have been chosen so far, and the delegates then go about seeking/drafting a candidate.

Anyone can run. The only rule is this: The Americans Elect ticket must be bipartisan. So if a candidate identifies as a republican, they must choose a democrat, or an independent as their running mate.

This June, at the Americans Elect convention, a ticket will be named, and a third-party candidate will be born.

At that point, Americans Elect leaves the race. The ticket then goes about raising money and campaigning.

"I know a lot of people who think they ought to be president," says McKinnon. "The only reason they don’t run is because they don’t have a bazillion dollars to eliminate all the ballot access problems or go through the primaries. If you say ‘you don’t have to go through the primaries and you don’t have to spend a dime for ballot access,' I think some interesting people are gonna show up."

Some already have including former Oklahoma Governor Buddy Roemer. Others, like former Senator Olympia Snowe, current Republican candidate Ron Paul, even Houston Mayor Annise Parker among hundreds more, are being discussed.

"People are used to picking candidates based upon the label, red or blue, whatever. Americans Elect will nominate based on issues and interests," says Levine.

It's hard to argue that there's ever been a better time for a new political idea like Americans Elect. "Once people responded just with apathy," says McKinnon. "But the stakes are just too high now given the economic circumstances people find themselves in and the seemingly obvious solutions that are out there and the failure of the political bodies to address those issues."

While the nomination process may be different, the third-party result may be the same. But that doesn't deter any of these guys.

"I've been working on disrupting the system for many years now, both from the inside and from the outside," McKinnon explains. "If this doesn't work, I'll try something else. But I think this just might work."

"I think we're going to win," said Byrd. Perhaps a bit optimistic, but if you don't believe you can do it, why would you even try?

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