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Proposal: Nominate a Presidential candidate directly, bypassing outdated partisan machinery

Long after the 2016 Presidential election, many are still scratching their heads. Modern party primaries were set up to replace smoke-filled rooms of the past and hand choice to the people. But we ended up with two of the least-liked major party nominees in history.

Something has gone wrong. But in the age of the internet, there's a fix. It is now feasible to set up a nomination process even more participatory than traditional primaries, yet also much likelier to reflect popular preferences. In fact, given lowered entry costs, the Presidential field can now widen to any US-born citizen over age 35.That gives us our pick of the best America can offer.

The Issue

Problem Defined

Americans may be the most ingenious people who ever lived.  We have sent a man to the moon. We have built a computer that beats grand masters in chess. We soon will be chauffered in self-driving cars. Now. . . .  if we could only set up a procedure for selecting Presidential nominees that measure up to the office. Was what happened in 2016 really the best we can do? What if we harnessed our collective ingenuity to the task? How can we reinvent our clunky primary machinery? Whatever new form it would take, an overhauled primary process would have to overcome five problems glaringly displayed in the most recent campaign season.  

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As originally conceived, the Presidency was supposed to represent the people, not a partyMORE

Little by little, the Presidency has become captive to narrower and narrower interests. George Washington, our first president, foresaw what was to come. "Political parties," he said, "may now and then answer popular ends, [but] they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government." Even as parties narrow their focus and special interests tighten their grip, polls show that 40% of the voting public self-identifies as Center or Independent.  

Challenge #1:  Bring the political apparatus in line with public sentiment by reviving a nonpartisan Presidency.

The machinery of partisan primaries is easily hijackedMORE

In 2016, election results were skewed in two ways that reflect weaknesses in party apparatus itself:  On the Republican side, the sheer size of the field allowed one candidate, lowering the tenor of discourse, to win the nomination by monopolizing a plurality of disgruntled, white working class voters. On the Democratic side, the winning nominee essentially bribed party headquarters to tilt the playing field her way. She also somehow secretly obtained questions to the Presidential debates in advance.

Challenge #2:  Build more responsive and transparent electoral machinery.

Primaries are structured like a horse race, not a human discourse moving toward rational resolutionMORE

To allow voters across a vast continent to have their say, modern parties have set up a race course that jumps randomly, state to state. The debate progresses geographically, not logically. It gives preferential treatment to Iowa and New Hampshire, states that may or may not actually represent the views of Americans as a whole.  

Challenge #3:  Let ideas and issues structure the course of debate, not whistle-stops on a campaign tour.

New technology keeps throwing a wrench into the electoral processMORE

Ever since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, political campaigns have scrambled to keep up with the implications of electronic media. The lack of make-up on television, a random sound byte or unrehearsed aside caught on videotape, even a minor software vulnerability, may matter more than character, a track record of leadership, or the ability to solve societal problems. In the most recent campaign, a relative lack of media-savvy may have lost one side the election. Contributing to the Clinton campaign's demise were:

  • Clinton's ill-advised use of a private server while Secretary of State; 
  • Russia's hacking into Democratic emails;
  • the fallout from "Wienergate" that drew attention to Clinton's chief of staff on the eve of the election. 

But perhaps most damaging of all, in our era of instantaneous media the sound byte or the tweet has come to replace sustained argument as the preferred means of public discourse.

Challenge #4:  Create a system that brings out the best applications of media rather than the worst, fostering in-depth interchange rather than hype and spin.  

The best and brightest don't runMORE

The rare citizen who might fill the shoes of a George Washington or Theodore Roosevelt is nowhere to be seen on the national political stage. Why? Because what it takes to win the Presidency and what it takes to be President have become two different things. Today, a candidate must run the gauntlet of challenges just now described--kowtowing to big money and special interests, navigating broken party apparatus, traveling day and night, and mastering the tricks of media. The sort of person capable of doing this is not necessarily the sort of person we want as President.

Challenge #5:  Elevate the playing field by downplaying irrelevant hurdles and spotlighting qualities appropriate to the highest office of the land.

The Project of Democracy

Kayssar, Alexander - The Democracy Reader, IDEA, Sondra Myers, ed. (January 1, 2002)


The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide

Gerzon, Mark - Berrett-Koehler (book publisher) (January 1, 2016)


A Declaration of Independents: How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the Am Dream

Orman, Greg - Greenleaf Book Group Press (January 1, 2016)


The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America

Keyssar, Alexander - Basic Books (January 1, 2001)


The People’s President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative

Longley, Lawrence D. and Neal R. e - Yale University Press (Revised Edition) (January 1, 1981)


Go deeper

AMERICANS FOR PARTICIPATORY PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES promotes an inclusive approach to choosing one of the most important figures on the planet. The initiative has been sparked by two individuals of different generations and gather steam from other generations of Americans, all committed the best of American ideals through positive leverage of new technologies.

Eric Brende
Writer and Craftsman -

The author of a perennial-selling book on Amish culture, Brende has studied how Amish political procedures reinforce Amish values, in particular by allowing the Amish to deploy technology selectively for their common interest. While studying political theory at Harvard under John Rawls, he also gained an appreciation for procedural mechanisms of achieving common ground across large and diverse populations. The proposal in view, accordingly, combines elements of grass-roots politics, technological mastery, and what might be called “aggregative democracy.”

For his efforts in the social implications of technology, Brende has received awards from the Mellon Foundation in the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. He is author of the book Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology. He has articulated his views in national media, including NPR, ABC News, and the Coast to Coast Radio Network. He makes his livelihood as a writer and craftsman in St. Louis, where he is active in neighborhood politics and improvement.

Robert Morley
Senior Professor - Washington University in St. Louis

Inventor of the Square Card Reader, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Washington University (just retired)

Morley has over a dozen patents listed under his name, but his greatest claim to fame is the Square Card Reader.  He recently won a legal settlement of $50 million defending his title as inventor of this ubiquitous technological application. See article

Morley was also the co-founder and vice-president of Micro-Term Inc., a manufacturer of microprocessor-based video display terminals. He has also made sizable contributions to the field of auditory electronics and is co-inventor of the digital hearing aid. While avidly interested in the technical side of computing, Morley also worries about social implications of technology and joins other high tech luminaries who raise concerns about runaway artificial intelligence.  

He divides his time between his home in St. Louis and a second home in Sydney, Australia.

The Solution

Proposed Actions
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Set up an online primary like a massive open tennis tournamentMORE

In the age of the Internet, the presidential field expands.  Opening up the field to the citizens at large makes the process more participatory, democratic, and competitive. By charging candidates modest entry fees (say $1776.00, evoking our nation's birthday) and soliciting voluntary contributions from voters, the process would pay for itself and dispense with the corrosive backing of influence peddlers--not to mention the sort of politician who can be "bought" by such interests.

A new arena of democracy.  Picture a field of thousands of hopefuls drawn from ordinary citizens. Picture millions of voters in the privacy of their own living rooms and at their leisure observing and reflecting upon the positions and character of these candidates, narrowing the field in weekly elimination rounds. Picture a process simplified by sorting both candidates and voters according to everyone's preferences in six key areas of policy, allowing 64 simultaneous contests to take place and yielding a field of 64 finalists.  

The revival of merit.  In such a meticulously designed tournament, special interest backing would not confer any special advantage. To succeed, contestants instead will rise or fall on their own merits--their record of prior achievement, their promise as leaders, their ability to think issues through carefully and give voice to the deeper values that unite us despite our differences. The sort of men and women gleaned by such an exacting and wide-ranging winnowing process would more likely possess the qualities we seek in a President, not merely the abilities needed to get through the existing obstacle course. 

"Seed" participants—both voters and candidates—based on their “political profiles” MORE

To arrive at the most deserving winner, open tennis tournaments must first "seed" players according to their abilities.   To maximize the chances of the most deserving Presidential nominee, this contest will need to "seed" players according to their political profiles.  Doing so allows the contest to gradually narrow the field to the contender most preferred by the widest spectrum of voters.

Choose candidates that appeal to your own political profile rather than a prepackaged party platformMORE

One of the bonuses of "seeding" participants is that doing so allows us to break out of the false dichotomy now purveyed by the political platforms of the two major parties.  Voters and candidates alike will be able to customize their own political profiles rather than having to subscribe to a prepackaged agenda imposed by one of the parties. They may pick and choose positions from across the spectrum as they see fit. Assuming six dimensions of voter choice, at least sixty-four (2 to the 6th power) possible political profiles can be envisioned.

Note that these dimensions are not set in stone, but subject to revision pending input from participants.  As currently phrased, the choices are binary and may not adequately capture everyone's positions in all cases   Still, whatever form the dimensions take will be provisional and likely never achieve perfection. The goal here is not to arrive at some perfect, prearranged outcome but merely to provide a framework within which one may locate one's own position relative to present partisan polarities, hence a starting point for debate and deliberation.  

The Six Dimensions (provisionally proposed) of GEORGE:

Relative to the status quo, do you believe . . .

. . . that GOVERNMENTAL PROGRAMS involving sizable social subsidies should shrink or expand?  Note that military and other kinds of funding fall under separate categories, below. (Possible test cases:  Obamacare, free college education, guaranteed minimum income).

. . . that ECONOMIC ACTIVITY AND TECHNOLOGICAL APPLICATION should be subject to less or more regulation? (Test cases:  free trade vs. tariffs, big business vs. small business incentives, automation vs. human workers).

. . .  that OPPORTUNITY for employment, school admissions, and public contracts should factor in demographic attributes like race or gender less or more?  If so, by the same token, should such distinctions matter less or more in law enforcement and security screenings? (Test cases:  affirmative action, racial profiling).

. . .  that REPRODUCTIVE AND FAMILY ISSUES should be shaped by laws and rulings reflecting less or more acceptance of abortion, gay unions, and other LGBT concerns? (Test cases:  Roe v. Wade,  Obergefell v. Hodges, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission)

. . .  that GEOPOLITICAL POWER should be exercised by America less or more forcefully overseas? (Test cases:  military involvement in the Middle East, Russian and Chinese expansionism, North Korea.)

. . .  that the ENVIRONMENT  should be less or more protected and promoted? (Test cases: clean energy, bicycle trails, revitalizing decaying inner cities, and walkable communities.)

Phase 1: A practice period followed by preliminary roundsMORE

Practice period.  For a month or two before the starting date, a practice period will be held allowing candidates and voters alike to get to know the ropes--and each other. Candidates will submit a video that shows off their character, background, thought process, and ability to think on their feet. The video will be made partly on their own time, partly via a timed, online questioning process that tests their real-time responses. These will not fancy productions but modest snapshots that put all candidates on a level playing field.  Voters may review them as often as they like and gain an intimate feel for as many candidates as they have time to peruse. Viewers may also post constructive comments. In response, candidates can make revisions to their videos (but not to the timed question segment). These preparatory activities would attract publicity and, in turn, widen participation and funding. 

Then Phase 1 of the official contest will begin. (It should start approximately a year-and-a-half before the November presidential election). Phase 1 would consist in simple elimination rounds. Once a week, voters with matching profiles will be randomly assigned to watch two separate, candidates’ videos drawn from the same profiles. Voters will have no advance knowledge of the contestants they are assigned to view although they will have had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the positions of as many candidates as they wish during the practice period. After the vote, half of the candidates with the most votes will remain in the running. The other half will drop out.

The contest will proceed weekly until there is only one contestant remaining in each of the 64 political profile slots.

Schematics.  Below is pictured a typical tournament elimination format showing two fields of numerous contestants each narrowed to one final match. Note that it takes only eight rounds to reduce 128 contenders to one winner:   

Note also that, by merely increasing the number of rounds to twelve, we can narrow two fields of 2048 contestants each to one final face-off. If we increased the number of fields to 64 (meaning 64 simultaneous contests), up to 131,072 contestants can be accommodated. It will take only 12 rounds to reduce that huge number to the final 64. The winner in each category will then go on to Phase 2.

Building the new arena.  This can be rendered pictorially. First imagine the two tapering tournament brackets pictured above as two adjacent triangles (slightly blunted):

Now, insert more triangles of different tints representing different political persuasions all meeting at the same central hub. What does this become? A many-colored wheel:

Now, if we reconfigure this "wheel of fortune" into something more democratic, we might envision the classic meeting place of Athenian democracy. Here is a picture of the Theater of Dionysus--the world's original town hall meeting-place:

If an Athenian amphitheater constructed on these lines had 64 wedge-shaped sections, each of them could seat a particular political faction whose internal deliberations could yield a representative that would descend to the central "winners' circle"--the arena at the foot of the sections where 64 finalists meet. This arena--translated online--is the outcome of Phase 1 of the competition:

Phase 2: Round robins move debate toward a unifying centerMORE

Once the final 64 candidates have been chosen, Phase 2 begins.  Here we take the shorter videos and Q & A sessions of Phase 1 to the next level: live-streaming, weekly debates. These debates will make the sound byte format of the major party primary debates look like the vapid exercise it is. Each will host only two candidates at a time focusing in depth on a single dimension of public policy. How can this be done with so many candidates still in the field?

Introducing the round robin.  We'll borrow another contest format from sports:  the "round robin."  In a round robin tournament, each contestant has a chance to face off with every other contestant. At the end, the one with the best over-all record wins.  In the interest of time, the candidates in this contest will face off only against candidates with whom they vary on one policy dimension. That will entail six debates per candidate (a manageable number)--one for each area of disagreement. After the first six-debate round, half of the candidates will advance to the next round and the process will repeat. (But note:  in this and later rounds, candidates may disagree along more than one policy dimension depending on which candidates have been eliminated).  

The winner's sphere.  Such a debate structure can be depicted as a soccer ball composed of hexagons, each of which touches another only along one edge. In the contest, each of the 64 finalists will face off only against adjacent candidates that differ from them along one policy dimension:

And so, what was previously called the "winners' circle" is really a "winners' sphere"--a fanciful Grecian soccer ball plopped in the middle of a virtual amphitheater, representing the best options as selected by the American people as they "kick around" choices for a new head of state.

From a chaos of colors to "plaid" thought patterns. If structured this way, again, the arrangement will:  

  1. Help each candidate showcase his/her thought process in-depth along each policy angle (again, the debates focus on only one edge of disagreement at a time); 
  2. Acquaint voters in-depth with the same policies as well as the personalities and thought-processes of the candidates;
  3. Gradually move the debates toward positions that are best able to accommodate and reconcile multiple points of view, hence toward a candidate more likely to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. If the sorting process elicits the nuanced thinking it should, the winner will not represent a bland middle position--not be a man or woman in a gray suit--but transform the many shades of American opinion into a new pattern that transcends the individual colors while incorporating all of them. The many-colored soccer ball gives rise to the Plaid President:

[Note of thanks:  credit for the idea of "plaid politics" must be given to Deborah Devedjian.]

The final stretch.  The round robin debates  should be timed to coincide with the regular primary schedule, and the final dual with the California primary. (Candidates' original videos will still be available to voters to help them assess character, etc.) During the summer, participants will rally around the winner at a celebratory convention. The runner-up will serve as running mate. Money from entrance fees and voluntary contributions will bankroll the pair during the final stretch of the campaign leading toward the November election. 

Mind the housekeeping and technical detailsMORE

Before the contest begins, certain housekeeping steps must be taken.  

Nonprofit entity.  For starters, the entity running the online nomination platform will need to be set up as a nonprofit whose employees and affiliates are dedicated to its mission.   

Participation.  To participate, both voters and candidates must submit appropriate documentation attesting they are who they say they are (such documentation is often required, say, to make an Airbnb reservation).  Candidates only must also meet the usual requirements for the office of the Presidency (proof of age 35 by election day and birth in the U.S.) and pay a $1776.00 entry fee to help fund the process. Voters can also make voluntary donations. $17.76 will be suggested.  Participants would need to agree to certain rules of civility and decency, with violations resulting in expulsion.

Outside campaigning.  Candidates will need to agree not to run or fund separate election campaigns or outside advertising to bolster their positions (this would skew the playing field). Doing so will disqualify them from the online contest.  

Simultaneity of voting.  Each weekly round of voting would need to occur simultaneously across the nation (meaning that if say, it were on Tuesday evenings, it would begin at different times of the same night depending on the time zone--say, 7 pm Pacific, 8 pm Mountain, 9 pm Central, 10 pm Eastern). This stipulation is intended to prevent (a) the results of votes from influencing one another and (b) one person casting multiple votes. 

Randomization.  During the initial elimination rounds, random, concurrent duels within one political profile contest will occur to offset the chances of premature encounters between the most promising contenders (i.e., the same two opponents won't face each other but will face multiple other opponents in random viewings).

Security Measures.  The software must be state-of-the-art. Great care would have to be taken to ward off hacking, gaming or invasion by bots or trolls. A limit would be placed on the number of actions performed via a given user account. Certain details about upcoming voting procedures could be withheld to the last minute to keep hackers off the scent.  

User Self-Verification.  Existing technology does not yet allow purely anonymous voting in an online contest like this because of problems in verification. So, one further step must be taken to insure security of the voting process: given that voters’ choices would have to be posted in such a way that the voters will know how their vote was recorded, giving them a chance to self-verify their selections.

Expected Results
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By embracing technology purposefully we mitigate unintended technological disruptionMORE

As things stand, it appears that new technology has done more to hinder than help us in picking Presidential nominees that reflect our preferences. But that may be because we have reacted to technology more or less randomly and spasmodically.  We haven't embraced it intelligently and purposefully, much less attempted to exploit its best possibilities. If artfully deployed along the lines described above, there is good reason to believe that electronic media may not only help us fix traditional primaries. Media can help us gain something primaries never could:  an intimate, two-way encounter between voter and candidate. Media, paradoxically, can help us choose Presidents in a way that is relatively unmediated.

The system balances old and new forces MORE

This online contest might appear to favor the young and the tech-savvy, who tend to be more "cutting edge" or “liberal.” But the procedure has a built-in counterweight:  equal standing is accorded to each of the 64 political profiles regardless of the numerical show of support for a given profile, or whether the options are “liberal” or “conservative.” This gives us the best of both worlds:  we can make friends with new ideas, but also keep the old.

The birth of a nonpartisan partyMORE

The procedures described above constitute an online nomination scheme, not an online Presidential election. It still would remain for the winner to run in the general election. The nominee would still need to get on the ballot in as many states as possible under the name of some party or as in Independent. 

Getting onto a ballot is labor intensive. Each state has different requirements. In Missouri, for instance, to enroll in the name of a party, it is necessary to have an elector from the petitioning party residing in each of the 7 Congressional districts. Alternatively, perhaps an existing party could be persuaded to accept the nominee from this contest as its own nominee. Forming an alliance with the Reform Party or the Green Party would save immeasurable legwork. Without that shortcut, on the other hand, it would be necessary to establish either a brand new party or Independent status, with all that would entail. But if the first option were taken, wasn't it part of the point to avoid involvement with parties? A compromise, perhaps, would be to name the new arrival the "Nonparty." It would function less as a conventional party than as the political arm of the nonprofit organization purely dedicated to the nomination of a nonpartisan President.


According to one CTO recently consulted, the software for this online nomination platform may at least $1 million to engineer. But the larger operation, including staff and legal services, will need more and more funding to keep up with expansion, perhaps $5 million to finance a single presidential campaign season. The good news is that, as it expands, the system would be self-funding through entry fees and donations. To be ready for the 2020 Presidential election, there is no time to waste: assembling a competent software engineering team needs to happen at the earliest possible date.

The Conversation

2 years ago
A significant percentage of our nation's population work at night. In the proposed voting time frame (to commence at 7 PM across the nation) many citizens would not be able to vote. I propose having a 24-hour time frame for voting.
Eric Brende
Writer and Craftsman
2 years ago
Yes, you've identified a definite issue. If a larger voting window were created, ideally the election results would be withheld during the entire time so as not to influence the voting while it is still in process. Also, a larger voting window might increase the chances of a scam whereby someone could figure out a way to vote more than once in spite of security safeguards. That is a security issue that would need to be given close attention. Thanks for this needed and perceptive comment.
2 years ago
Reforming our election process is sorely needed. And I'm all in for ideas. I have a couple of questions: 1) how does this process protect itself from being hacked? If the established process has been apparently vulnerable to hacking and unwanted influence, what measures will be taken here? 2) this is more an observation than question, but it seems that much thought must be given to the systemic nature of this method, meaning thinking through all the cause-and-effects, impacts and counter-impacts of each step. What kind of long-term thought process is going into this idea (from all the angles) to ensure that we don't create a worse monster in 5, 10, 20 years?
Eric Brende
Writer and Craftsman
2 years ago
Obviously, this whole plan hinges on whether or not the system could resist hacking. But this is a problem that other large user-interfaces have for the most part dealt with successfully. Think of Amazon, and all the potential exposure of private information it has warded off. As for larger unintended effects on down the line: if this procedure were to be implemented, then as time goes on its success would depend on the ability of the team managing it to keep ahead of untoward social ramifications. I do believe it is only a matter of time before someone launches an online nomination procedure like this. The only question is, Who, and will the procedure be done perspicaciously or naively?
2 years ago
Seems like an excellent solution... one that the founders of the nation probably hoped for: a true meritocracy based on sufficient information about the available candidates. Clearly your hope is that special interest and money will have a reduced impact on political success, but how does your proposal prevent (or reduce) the influence of purchased media (or "fake news," although I hate that term now thanks to a president who calls everything fake that puts him in a bad light)?
Eric Brende
Writer and Craftsman
2 years ago

This is a perceptive comment. If I read you right, you have identified perhaps the weakest aspect of the procedure in mind: that independent entities, mobilized by powers that be, could blitz the public with their own propaganda to try to influence or skew the outcome in any of a number of ways. The hope is that the winnowing process itself would be rigorous enough to stand on its own and that voters would be able to see through the scams, and judge the contestants on their own merits.

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