Americans Elect’s Online Nomination Is a Recipe for Trouble

on July 26, 2011

Americans Elect, a group that promises a new way of nominating a candidate for President in 2012, lept into prominence in recent days with a ringing endorsement from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. I don’t propose to debate the merits of the group’s ideas, but I want to take a look at the practicality of the proposed online nominating process. It’s not going to work.

Americans Elect logo The information Americans Elect gives on its web site is very sketchy, but the basic idea is that any registered voter can become a “delegate” simply by signing up. It’s not clear how, or if, voter registration is verified. All I had to do when I signed up was give an email address and create a four-digit PIN code. It appeared to me to be trivial to create multiple accounts using different email addresses; I asked Americans Elect about this but have not yet received a reply. [See update below]

There’s a good reason why we generally don’t see online voting for anything more serious than American Idol winners. Running a clean and secure online election is very, very difficult. Under the conditions we generally expect of formal elections, both security and anonymity as close to absolute as we can make them, it may be impossible. Last year, a modest experiment with online voting for U.S. military personnel abroad had to be suspended when it proved hopelessly insecure.

Systems that have been tried for serious online voting  generally require the distribution of voting tokens–generally a one-time password of some sort–through a secure offline channel. Often this is done by sending the information via postal mail. Americans Elect doesn’t say whether it plans to use such a system, but it would be complicated and expensive for sort of multi-stage nominating process it plans to use.

There’s a big risk that the Americans Elect nominating process could be turned into a circus. Unless exacting measures are in place to protect the integrity of the voting, the system could very easily be gamed (as has happened with American Idol voting.) It will be interesting to see what state election officials have to say about this process, although, in general, parties are given great latitude in how they nominate candidates, and in the view of election boards, Americans Elect will be a party.

By the way, anyone thinking of clicking the Donate button on the American Elect web site should be careful to read the fine print. Contributions to the organization, like those to any party or candidate, are not tax deductible.


UPDATE: I received the following unsigned reply to my question about measures to prevent multiple registrations:

Nothing, really. This is definitely at least something of a problem, but the way I see it, if we end up with with a meaningful number of delegates, the people with clone accounts will only be gaining minimal advantage to change things.

That said, if we can find a way to prevent this without causing significant usage/convenience problems, I’m all for it.

Sorry, but that drastically underestimates the web’s potential for mischief or malice. If Americans Elect want this process to be taken seriously, they’ll have to do a lot better.