How Americans Elect Thinks It Can Change The Way We Vote

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Khalil Byrd, CEO of Americans Elect, talked about the campaign to nominate a presidential candidate outside the political party system.

What is Americans Elect?

Launched in July of this year, Americans Elect is a website dedicated to running the first-ever non-partisan online convention for president. Voters sign up to the site (founder Khalil Byrd says everyone's voter registration status will be checked), rate the issues that are important to them, and eventually nominate and select a candidate for the 2012 election.

Sounds like a nice idea, but it is not without controversy. More on that later.

Byrd touts the project as the opportunity for a candidate to "stand up and run authentically." They can be a Democrat or a Republican, or an Independent, or whatever; they can come from any background that the electorate will bear; they need not be party favorites—in fact, that's kind of the point. Any Americans Elect voter can sign up to be a delegate for the convention, which is supposed to give political outsiders a chance to have the kind of influence on a nominating process usually reserved for party insiders.

Byrd says it's all about putting the process back in the hands of the people, rather than parties.

First, delegates get to shape the rules of engagement; unlike the two-party system, the people actually get an opportunity to shape what this process looks like. Second, the American people get the opportunity to shape the issues that candidates deal with. Third, delegates have the opportunity to either draft or select candidates to come online.

How it works and who might run

Beginning in mid-December, Americans Elect will roll out their nominees. In April of 2012, the convention process begins, during which the field of candidates will narrow to six. The final six will then have to choose a vice presidential running mate from a different party—the "first act of courage," Byrd says.

Who might the nominees be? Byrd's playing those cards close to his chest, citing privacy concerns, but gave a broad idea of the kind of people Americans Elect delegates were looking at.

We're looking at current and former governors and senators; people who've run large cities, large businesses, large foundations, universities; people who have had major military commands; people who have the kind of leadership qualities and backgrounds that the American people respect.

Funding controversy

Americans Elect calls itself transparent and posts its tax information on its website, but there's one piece of the puzzle that's conspicuously absent from an organization that claims independence from and invulnerability to entrenched (and moneyed) political interests: a list of donors. (Our own Anna Sale reported on this earlier in the year.)

Who supports Americans Elect? One caller asked about the small number of donors who've contributed $20 million to the program, but whose identities remain undisclosed. Khalil Byrd noted that there was a process by which donors could "emerge" on the site, but at their own discretion. He said that withholding this information from the start was important to protecting the safety of donors.

We are in a tough political environment, and in that tough political environment, the idea of retribution is real. Whether you've given $100 or much more than that, people need to be able to emerge to support a process like this—which is disruptive—at their own pace, and we acknowledge that need and respect it.

Stalking horse for the GOP?

Some skeptics worry that the site is disingenuous, that the process is aimed at being "disruptive" to one candidacy in particular. One e-mailer worried that Americans Elect would functionally act as a stalking horse for the Republican party: by nominating another moderate candidate to compete against Barack Obama, the moderate vote could be split and the road to victory made easier for the GOP nominee.

Byrd responded that Barack Obama need not run against an Americans Elect candidate; he could be the Americans Elect candidate.

The president could actually run on the Americans Elect line and the Democratic line at the same time; all he would have to do is select a vice presidential candidate from a different party and basically go back and sell that to the Democratic party.

To which Brian Lehrer said, "Come on."