Friedman predicts 2012 Presidential candidate via Estonia-like Internet voting system

Update 8/7:  Tom Tomorrow explains the politics in cartoon: Thomas Friedman, Private Eye<view>

A [thought] provoking, yet worrisome op-ed by Tom Friedman in the New York Times: Make Way for the Radical Center <read>

Wherein the observer of a flat world, endorses an Estonian election system embraced by a third party looking to elect our President, chosen in a nationwide Internet primary:

Thanks to a quiet political start-up that is now ready to show its hand, a viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention, is going to emerge in 2012. I know it sounds gimmicky — an Internet convention — but an impressive group of frustrated Democrats, Republicans and independents, called Americans Elect, is really serious, and they have thought out this process well. In a few days, Americans Elect will formally submit the 1.6 million signatures it has gathered to get on the presidential ballot in California as part of its unfolding national effort to get on the ballots of all 50 states for 2012.

If it is successful, as Tom predicts, we should know in about three “Friedman Units“. We are skeptical of Friedman’s predictions of its effect, even it it succeeds. From the op-ed:

to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open — guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.

Would it be free from such influences, far from the center of power? Hardly, if Friedman accurately describes the force behind the initiative:

Kahlil Byrd, the C.E.O. of Americans Elect, speaking from its swank offices, financed with some serious hedge-fund money, a stone’s throw from the White House.

Let us look at last week’s article in the Daily Beast describing more details, as imagined and actually proposed, <read>

Imagine what our election system might look like if it were designed today: No Byzantine electoral college, no long lines on a random Tuesday, no closed primaries that force candidates into the arms of their party’s special interests. Modern Madisons and Hamiltons would try to devise a process that’s open, online, citizen-driven, and capable of producing leaders that can unify the nation once in office…

consumers have shown in every other field that they are no longer satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.

Unlike cable service, where it would seem to a Martian visitor we love only a single choice, Brand C,  high cost and low service.

Another indication of how different and grassroots-like this effort is:

A bunch of political pros—“politically homeless,” in the words of Michael Arno, the California-based political consultant overseeing Americans Elect’s national ballot access—have signed on. CEO Kalil Byrd is a Republican who served as communications director for Democrat Deval Patrick’s victorious gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts. Senior political adviser and pollster Doug Schoen worked for President Clinton and Mayor Bloomberg (and often polls for Newsweek/The Daily Beast). An impressive board of tri-partisan advisers ranges from former FBI Director William H. Webster to former CEO of Hallmark Irvine Hockaday to the dean of Tufts’ Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Stephen W. Bosworth.

And how transparent:

 Over the past several months, I attended one of 400 off-the-record fundraisers

Like many movements and half-baked ideas, this one is ready with a preemptive shot at its critics:

Skeptics, of course, can have a field day with this techno-utopian political fantasy. Casting aside technical hurdles regarding the system’s security and integrity (“We’ve taken measures stronger than banks and brokerage firms in the financial industry,” says designer Joshua S. Levine, who cut his professional teeth as chief technical officer and chief operating officer of E*Trade), there’s the even more daunting prospect of getting on the ballots, when neither Democrats nor Republicans want them to succeed

This is  reminiscent of the article on Estonian voting we covered yesterday. No mention of any transparency in the development, testing, and operation of the actual system. Rather than quoting independent technical experts, we see the system pronounced safe by the architect. Did Ronald Reagan say “Trust Me”?  Of course not. Actually it sounds like something Bernard Madoff might have said. President Reagan actually said “Trust But Verify”.

And that’s all before the candidate-selection process, and the chance that an organized faction could hijack the process, delivering the nomination to a charismatic joke candidate (think Donald Trump).

But what if, on the other hand, a civic celebrity like Tom Brokaw emerged? Or a frustrated would-be-nominee, whether one with an intense ideological fanbase like libertarian Congressman Ron Paul or a center-right candidate like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who finds the current composition of the GOP primaries too conservative to survive. More likely is the nomination of a centrist dream team, like a Mike Bloomberg-Colin Powell competence ticket or a fiscal-responsibility double bill of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Mark Warner, Chuck Hagel, David Petraeus—the possibilities are infinite.

Or maybe the process is not “hijacked” but the people create a party platform close to some of the results we have seen in some recent polls? A platform of banning guns, protecting Social Security, universal health care, and decriminalization of pot? (Remember when Obama asked his supporters to vote on initiatives after the election? Not much publicity after they voted pot decriminalization as the top priority). What is scary is the potential for insiders to actually hijack the process by disqualifying or discrediting such votes. Or outsiders successfully attacking the system undetected.

No mention here of the possibility of candidates being chosen such as Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or, Pat Roberson forbid, Michael Moore, Keith Olberman, or Ralph Nadar.

It does not sound transparent financially or electorally. Yet, I can see why almost everyone would want to sign-up to promote their favorite type of candidates and party platform.

Updated: 7/25/2011

Last night I joined the site to try the system.  At this point they ask opinions on some 64 items. My impressions:

  • Each question offers a choice of 3 or 4 items and an ‘Unsure’ option.
  • Perhaps 1/3 of the time, I am not completely happy with the options. I would prefer another option. I noticed at least one question with a false dichotomy. Otherwise the choices seem reasonable.
  • After choosing each question, the system shows the vote %’s for each answer so far. As I predicted the votes seem to me to correlate with polls I have seen (e.g. a strong preference to raise taxes, stimulate the economy, and support gay marriage.)
  • Disappointing, there is no option to suggest other alternative answers and, perhaps more significantly, no mechanism to submit additional issues. (So its unlikely we will see votes on decriminalizing pot or banning Internet voting etc.)

Update: F.A.I.R also some interesting comments. It seems Tom Friedman advocated similarly in 2004 and in 2007: <read>

This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with efforts to challenge the two-party system, which certainly limits political expression. But it’s curious that Friedman assumes that the “center” isn’t being adequately represented–or that, more importantly, a truly democratic nominating process would yield a “centrist” ticket. There’s no reason to believe that would happen. Friedman’s candidate would “challenge both parties from the middle”–but why would the people choose such a candidate? And is a third party “financed with some serious hedge-fund money” really a step in the right direction?

One rule Americans Elect has set down: A presidential candidate has to cross the party line to find his or her running mate–as Friedman puts it, “a Democrat must run with a Republican or independent, and a Republican with a Democrat or independent.”

This sounds like… well, something that Tom Friedman would advocate. Which he did, in 2004: “I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president.” Or consider the Tom Friedman who, in 2007, suggested that if Obama were to win the Democratic nomination, he “might want to consider keeping Dick Cheney on as his vice president.” The reason had something to do with Iran policy: “Mr. Obama’s gift for outreach would be so much more effective with a Dick Cheney standing over his right shoulder, quietly pounding a baseball bat into his palm.” Ah, the magic of centrism!

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