Americans Elect's website lets voters choose the presidential nominee. (americanselect.org )
In the past 100 years, technology has drastically changed most things in our lives. But one crucially important part of our political system has remained mired in the last century: the way we choose our president.
America's current nominating system dates to 1910, when the first presidential primary was held in Oregon. At the time, this was a radical step, aimed at taking the nominating process away from political bosses. Now, a century later, we're overdue for another radical step.
The primary system we use today borders on the absurd. It starts off in Iowa, a state with less than 1% of the nation's population. The caucuses there are nonbinding and, in the case of the Democrats, don't even use secret ballots. One week later, the attention shifts to New Hampshire, a state with less than one-half of 1% of all Americans, where the first primary is held.
The months-long process, in which votes are held in state after state, promotes one thing above all others: fundraising. And in their quest for campaign dollars, candidates end up catering to supporters with the most extreme views in that particular party and those with the biggest pocketbooks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 23, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 17 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Elections: A March 18 Op-Ed article about the group Americans Elect referred to the first presidential primary in Oregon in 1910. The correct year is 1912.
There is painful irony in all of this because it is taking place in an age when digital technology is making everything else in our lives more efficient, more accessible, more competitive and even more democratic.
Consider my field, entertainment. I started out working as a page at NBC. I thought I had won the lottery because I had managed to land a job at one of the nation's three television networks, which were then watched by virtually every American. Today there are hundreds of television channels (though not a lot of page jobs), and anyone with a computer, a video camera and a funny cat can create a "network" and broadcast to millions of people around the world on the Internet.
Similarly, whether you live in New York City or New Amsterdam, Ind. (population 1), you can comparison-shop for the best bargains, access an unlimited number of books and periodicals, conduct free video chats with people halfway around the globe or just sit back and listen to your personal radio station on Pandora.
Of course, there has been a lot of trial and error to get to this stage. And it's all still evolving, as old models continue to be disrupted and replaced with new ones.
This year, we have a chance to replace the broken primary system with something that makes much more sense. We have it in our power to do some serious party crashing.
It is important to remember that nowhere in the Constitution is there any mention of a two-party system, nor are rules set out for nominating presidential candidates. It's hard to imagine that the Founding Fathers would think our current system is working.
This is the thinking behind a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Americans Elect, which, this June, will conduct the first national online primary. You can go to www.americanselect.org for the details, but the bottom line is that, with a click of your mouse, you can become a delegate and help nominate a well-qualified candidate who will appear on the ballot nationwide, resulting in a genuine three-way race for the presidency.
To help ensure that this candidate will be a problem-solver who represents the great majority of American society rather than fringes or the special interests, he or she will be required to pick a running mate from a different party. For example, if the candidate is a Republican, the running mate might be a Democrat or an independent.
Americans Elect is aiming to put its candidate on every ballot in every state, and the candidate will campaign across the country and appear in debates. In the end, though this is certainly a long shot, he or she just might become the next president of the United States.
Regardless of the outcome, Americans Elect will introduce a new model for selecting candidates that could lead us to a more perfect democracy.
The goal of Americans Elect is not simply to find a clever new use for all those silicon chips dancing in our devices. The goal is to have better government. Poll after poll has shown that Americans are in broader agreement on most of the major issues of our day than are our polarized politicians. But we are burdened with a system that gives a bullhorn to the smallest voices and makes the majority feel unheard.
Americans Elect has the potential to change that.
This country has always prided itself on being forward-looking. Yet our election system is mired in the past. Just 12 years ago, the presidency was decided by some dangling pieces of paper on ballots that had been poorly punched by a handful of Floridians. Surely, we can do better.