RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., June 18, 2012 – According to its website, “The Goal of Americans Elect (was) to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters – not the political system.” What many had hoped would be a glorious attempt to allow the People to finally have a say in presidential politics was brought to an end by its Board last month. This voluntary surrender wasn’t brought about by the vast number of errors in execution that plagued the effort from its inception, but rather by the organization’s refusal to address its flaws and its overbearing need to “win” in the traditional sense.
The concept was simple. As Americans Elect’s website originally proclaimed: “American voters are tired of politics as usual. They want leaders that will put their country before their party, and American interests before special interests. Leaders to work together to develop fresh solutions to the serious challenges facing our country. We believe a secure, online nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket.”
Had the organization remained committed to its Goal (and the basis of that Goal), it might have had a chance to succeed. Instead, it crumbled under the weight of “politics as usual.”
The die was cast early in the process. Rather than providing a level playing field, Americans Elect created a five-to-one advantage for “politics as usual.” It required non-traditional candidates to amass 5,000 “delegates” in 10 different States while traditional candidates (i.e., former federally elected officials) only needed to attract 1,000 “delegates” in 10 different States. While there were other salient differences, the vast disparity in delegate requirements rendered them moot.
For over four months, Americans Elect featured major Party candidates’ pictures quite prominently on its “candidates” page ostensibly to create an illusion of legitimacy. Additionally, hundreds of other traditional politicians’ names and pictures were also featured on the site. However, during this same period, many non-traditional candidates, who were actually registered with the FEC (including me), had to wait until the last few days of February (and, in some cases, into March) to be listed with a picture and fully edited profile.
In response to a personal inquiry, I received the following reply on December 29, 2011:
“We’ve just started with the candidate’s page, and the data is currently supplied by On The Issues. We’ll be including more people in the coming weeks, and soon, you’ll also be able to draft anyone you think should be a candidate, including yourself! We appreciate your patience as we continue to build the website. Please stay tuned and keep checking back at www.AmericansElect.org. Sincerely, The Americans Elect Team”
Given that members of Americans Elect’s Board had been appearing on network news shows throughout November and December and surely were aware that the 2012 Election Day was set in stone, it seemed odd that its website was not going to be fully operational for some.
By mid-January, my name was finally listed as a “declared” candidate although no picture, candidate profile, etc. were available despite my status as a registered candidate with the FEC. It also took an additional two months before my name was spelled correctly despite repeated requests to make the correction. Apparently, if you’re a presidential candidate of Irish ancestry, the apostrophe in your name (and any associated capitalization nuance) can wreak havoc with your chances.
On the positive side, Americans Elect made a sincere effort to vet delegates before allowing them to vote. If only our Department of Justice would show the same level of respect for protecting the sanctity of that right.
However, the organization’s “verification” process was saddled with technical problems. As a presidential candidate, it took me several months to become verified, and I was required to do something outside of Americans Elect’s normal process to accomplish this.
This problem persisted throughout Americans Elect’s brief existence. My campaign committee was receiving about 10 calls or emails a week that complained about the inability to become verified as a delegate to cast a vote on my behalf. Correspondingly, people were afraid to refer their friends to the system until the issue had been resolved. As a result, the ability to build any significant momentum was stymied.
In response to multiple inquiries about this, Americans Elect responded on March 30 as follows:
“Apologies for the delay in addressing your concerns. While our normal delegate verification process has an approximately 99% success rate, there are still unfortunately individuals that are having trouble verifying their identity. To address this problem, we have created a manual system of verification that we anticipate will be available starting Monday, 2 April 2012. This system will ensure that those who have been unable to verify through our verification process, yet are indeed who they claim to be, will have full privileges on the Americans Elect website.”
If the success rate of “approximately 99%” was remotely accurate, I should have had approximately 11,000 votes by March 30 instead of the 500 or so that were tallied (which placed me fifth among declared candidates).
Did I mention that the “manual verification” process ultimately was delayed and also failed to fix the problem?
The reason this is relevant is that the verification system failure essentially precluded any candidate’s ability to achieve the arbitrary thresholds that had been established by Americans Elect (including traditional candidates who already enjoyed a 5:1 advantage relative to the delegate requirement).
POLITICS AS USUAL
Conceptually, Americans Elect was a critically important initiative because the Parties have been allowed to construct significant economic barriers to preclude the entry of any legitimate competition. The cost to gain ballot access is more than $1 million per State.
Americans Elect offered a “99%” guarantee that it would deliver ballot access to whatever candidate emerged from its convention. Its decision to terminate its grand in late May essentially ceded control to the Parties.
Let it be said that Americans Elect had every right to exercise its decision to discontinue its project. While it is difficult to perceive why the organization would abandon what it professed to be a ballot line that already exceeded the 270 electoral votes that are necessary to elect a President, Americans Elect’s Board certainly retained that right.
Not a single candidate approached the mythical number of delegates that the Board demanded; not even among the traditional candidates, who were given such an enormous advantage (e.g., Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Michael Bloomberg, David Walker, et al.). Rather than address the reality that its verification system didn’t work and that the arbitrary delegate requirements were unrealistic, it evidently was easier to abort the effort.
It was then that “politics as usual” entered into the mix.
The Board of Americans Elect proclaimed victory by declaring that the organization’s “operational goals were all achieved.” Really?
Again, according to its website, “The Goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters – not the political system.” Was that goal achieved?
Continuing from its website: “American voters are tired of politics as usual. They want leaders that will put their country before their party, and American interests before special interests. Leaders to work together to develop fresh solutions to the serious challenges facing our country. We believe a secure, online nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket.”
Perhaps that was just rhetoric. In the private sector, one would be embarrassed to seriously profess that the organization’s “operational goals were all achieved,” but then, this is politics, and in politics, the standard course of action is to find someone else to blame.
In an interview with radio talk show host, Michael Smerconish, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (a Board member of Americans Elect) reiterated the party line and indicated her personal disappointment that Americans Elect had not been able to identify a candidate (even though hundreds were listed on the site and had attracted support).
As Mr. Smerconish summarized in a subsequent article he published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (“Third party movement fizzles”), it was all about winning. He said, “With a B-list of wannabes, Americans Elect could only have played a spoiler role and those behind the effort must not have wanted such a legacy. Whitman told me as much.”
According to Mr. Smerconish’s assessment, “… not even the prospect of access to 50 state ballots was enough to attract an A-list candidate. Apparently, that’s because of some of those who could have filled the bill were good for lip service only.”
“I understood and always knew it was going to be a tough row to hoe to get people to do that. I appreciated that coming from the political world as I do,” said Whitman. “But I am disappointed, particularly because … (of) the number of people who have said, … ‘This is a great idea, this is what we ought to be doing, I am fully supportive,’ and then push comes to shove (and) it’s, ‘Uh, you know, I can’t really come out and say I believe that.’ And that is disappointing.”
Let the record show that in December of 2011, former Gov. Whitman had publicly called upon Jon Huntsman to run as an independent. In its final months, there also appeared to be an undercurrent of activity at Americans Elect to encourage David Walker (former U.S. Comptroller General and an advisor to Americans Elect’s Board) to do the same.
In the private sector, such “encouragement” by a Board that held unilateral control over the rules, etc. would almost certainly be viewed to be a conflict of interest and a potential breach of fiduciary duty, but again, this is politics; a world essentially devoid of fiduciary duty.
On the positive side, we can learn from every failure. The greatest lesson to be learned from this exercise is the compelling difference that exists between an A-List candidate in the public sector and an A-List leader from the private sector.
Apparently, the qualifications for being deemed an “A-List” candidate include a political pedigree (successful or otherwise), national name recognition, and an inability to stand for that in which you believe (i.e., ‘Uh, you know, I can’t really come out and say I believe that’).
Allow me to distinguish the difference between an “A-List” candidate and an “A-List” leader.
An “A-List” leader may not have a political pedigree. As a result, he or she may not “owe” anyone for anything and may not have to provide political access or favors in return for such “debts.”
An “A-List” leader may not have national name recognition which, if history is any indication, can be acquired as easily as performing one well-read speech from a TelePrompTer at a National Convention.
Instead, an “A-List” leader almost certainly has actual operating experience in the real world. He or she may have run organizations of significant scale in widely diverse industries.
An “A-List” leader undoubtedly has experienced intense competitive pressure; usually without adequate resources with which to respond in a traditional manner.
An “A-List” leader is likely to have achieved success as the result of exceptional problem-solving skills, strategic execution, and the ability to build consensus rather than as the result of political connections and superior funding.
Most importantly, an “A-List” leader has the courage to stand up for those things in which he or she believes.
The vulnerability of our political system is that it places form over substance; it pays homage to sound bites rather than solutions; and it has become obsessed with “winning.” To quote former Gov. Whitman: “We’re not going to lower our standards …Our team has to show it can win.”
Given the perception that the Office of President of the United States is some sort of trophy to be won, it is unlikely that Americans Elect can lower its standards
As an independent “B-List” candidate and an “A-List” leader, I can categorically state that this isn’t a game. Our Nation is at risk, and we need real leadership to solve our problems. As Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To paraphrase him, “We cannot solve our problems with the same ‘A-List’ candidates we used when we created them.” It’s time for “A-List” leaders.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A President for the People, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.