Dissatisfaction with the American political process is no secret. Many people feel the deeply entrenched, if unofficial (the Founding Fathers detested the very idea of political parties), two party system is inadequate and that the Democrats and Republicans between them lock out any possibility of a third party candidate having a chance on Election Day. Some people like to lump Republicans and Democrats together, arguing that there is no difference between them and an open-minded observer can see why they might feel that way, whether we agree with them or not. But for better or worse, the two-party system is superior to multi-party systems other countries – Italy for example – have to deal with. If you want real gridlock, perpetual gridlock, go that route. Too many choices can be as bad as too few.
One group in this country has hit upon a very modern and novel approach to the problem, turning to the Internet to provide a forum for candidates from outside the normal political process. Calling itself Americans Elect it promises, “Americans Elect lets you choose a leader that puts country before party.” Saying that 80 percent of voters would “consider an alternative presidential ticket in the coming campaign” they have collected almost two-and-a-half million signatures, “over half,” they brag, “what’s needed to put the Americans Elect ticket on the ballot nationwide.” In other words, they have solved the two-party dilemma by bypassing the powers that be.
Americans Elect promises “an equal vote for every voter” and a nonpartisan ticket, because each finalist must choose a VP “from a party other than their own.” To be blunt, this isn’t strictly speaking a nonpartisan ticket, since the VP is largely a cipher, but it’s a nice (if superficial) gesture toward conciliation and compromise. In these days of raging partisanship, that’s something, at least. The group makes clear they are not a third party. According to Ileana Wachtel, a spokesperson:
“We’re not a third party. We’re a second nominating process trying to create a ticket that is solutions-based, that will force the conversation to the center rather than keeping it at the extremes of either party.”
Never mind that in 2012 we have a centrist president who steers from the extremes of either party. If ever there was an awkward time to attempt this, it is now.
The group’s goal is to put a candidate on the ballot in every state and so far they’ve raised $22 million (toward a requirement of, they estimate, $35 million) and have some big name supporters. Look at some of the names:
CEO: Kahill Byrd, former communications director for Gov. Deval Patrick (D) of Massachusetts.
State Rep. Dan Winslow (R-MA), former chief counsel to Mitt Romney
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman
Former Clinton strategist Doug Schoen
Former National Intelligence Director Adm. Dennis Blair
Former FBI and CIA Director William Webster
Former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills
Investment banker Peter Ackerman started them off with a $5 million donation, who go the ball rolling.
So what’s the nightmare scenario, you ask?
Think about a split vote. Think about all those independents who decide elections. In The Pitfalls of a Third-Party Presidential Candidacy, Thomas E. Mann, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies and Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar, the American Enterprise Institute, argue that the effort is full of pitfalls. They remind us that a third party candidate in office would have difficulty governing:
“Few in the House or Senate would feel allegiance to or affinity for the newly elected president. Nothing in the movement for an independent presidential candidate is affecting recruitment of House and Senate candidates.”
Another potential problem, as they see it, is that “one of the major-party nominees could win a clear electoral victory, albeit with diminished popular support because of the three-way contest. The reduced popular support would undercut the legitimacy of the result and curtail momentum for the victor. In this tough environment, any diminishment of legitimacy for the winner is undesirable.”
But most chillingly, they warn:
“In 2012, the nightmare scenario for us would be angry or demoralized independents and discouraged centrist Republicans gravitating toward the third candidate, enabling a far-right Republican nominee to prevail with a narrow electoral majority or with a plurality followed by a win in a deeply divided House.”
You see where they are headed with this? Who controls the U.S. House of Representatives? The extreme right – Tea Party fanatics, demonstrated nihilists. Who elects the president if this is no clear majority? The U.S. House of Representatives.
The Twelfth Amendment says:
The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot,
Wachtel told CNN, “At this point, the system’s already spoiled,” she said. “We need to open the process up to more competition and more choices for the American people.”
Our political system is a mess. The Supreme Court played no small role in its destruction with its Citizens United ruling. Mann and Ornstein acknowledge this: “When it comes to dismay over contemporary political dysfunction, we yield to no one.” But there is real danger in monkeying with the works. People generally don’t tend to think ahead about the consequences of their actions; we find out about those later – the hard way. And then have to quick come up with a patch or a fix or a “new and improved” something or other to make it right. “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door,” as Bilbo warned Frodo. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
That’s where we are with this potential fix to our ideologically driven gridlock in Washington. The gridlock is bad. But as the old saying goes, the cure might be worse than the disease.