Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Flawed Technological Approach to Electoral Reform of Americans Elect

Jason E. Summers


November 4, 2011
by Jason E. Summers

This Wednesday Americans Elect held a kickoff press event in which they presented their plan to “nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters” using the web to bypass the traditional process. Formed in 2010, Americans Elect seeks to field a slate of candidates chosen by self-appointed delegates in a nation-wide primary.  Delegates will clarify issues, draft candidates, and vote through a web application hosted by Americans Elect.

With $22 million of funding and ballot access secured in multiple states, prospects for achieving their goals seem good. Citizens should watch these developments with interest, particularly as the Center for Public Justice has long held that electoral reform is a necessary component in making government more responsive to citizens. However, both the goals and the methods of Americans Elect are problematic, notwithstanding ethical and legal concerns.

Some of their stated goals, which include reducing the influence of special interests and increasing the responsiveness of elected officials to the electorate, are admirable. However, blaming the party system for current failure, they also aim to bypass parties by fielding a slate of “ideologically-balanced” candidates.  In seeking a single consensus ticket prior to the election and attempting to assure balance exclusively by the top-down mandate of a bipartisan ticket, their simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the two-party system fails to do justice to the real pluriformity of the political community.  As Jim Skillen has argued, neither eliminating parties nor introducing a third party is sufficient; a robust multiparty system with proportional representation is the most compelling solution.

By conducting their primary online, Americans Elect has invited comparison with organizations such as Amazon and Google that have transformed public life through web-based technology.  Yet, as these examples illustrate, technologies have costs and not all uses can be justified.  Responsible use of technology requires that it address real needs, adhere to normative requirements for ensuring the common good, and justify anticipated harms by anticipated gains. As stated at the event, the fundamental goal of Americans Elect is to overcome barriers to ballot access, which their financial figures indicated were supported by $15 million of their budget (presumably funding the labor-intensive process of collecting physical signatures).  But as they neither seek to reform the ballot-access process nor can use technology to assist them in obtaining access, it is unclear whether the new technology introduced by the online nomination process serves a real need.  Moreover, the technologies raise significant issues with unjust representation, biased processes, and lack of transparency, harmony, and assurance---all of which fail to uphold the common good while introducing unjustified harms.

For example, while initial participation requires only that users provide an e-mail address, later stages of candidate selection impose more stringent checks to verify identity and voter-registration status.  Just as some have argued regarding voter ID laws, these requirements constitute a de-facto poll tax, above and beyond the digital divide posed by barriers to internet access.  In addition to introducing a significant injustice into the primary process, these barriers also introduce significant incentives for special-interest groups who could use this process to achieve their ends by mobilizing support and selectively facilitating access for their members.

Additionally, through a series of multiple-choice questions the web application seeks to create a “platform of questions” to guide the nomination process and match participants to candidates.  But this questionaire is deeply flawed as a psychometric instrument.  It circumscribes and sometimes even guides opinion, rather than seeking to discover those issues driving voter choice by using more robust and well established methods.  The biased nature of this process undermines the advertised goals of the organization while threatening transparency, by failing to communicate the limits and capabilities of the technology.  It also does not provide for the harmony in use Monsma and his colleagues argue for, by severely compromising fitness for use.  Nor does it provide for assurance, by failing to ensure that the technology is dependable in achieving the desired outcomes.

Much can be gained through thoughtful electoral reform, which technology will inevitably enable. Unfortunately, the proposal from Americans Elect fails to achieve real gains while introducing significant new problems. For now, the promise of technology must wait.

—Jason E. Summers is chief scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC.  These views are his own.

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