Democracy is broken in America.  As Jon Walker said in the member webinar last night, our political system is controlled by legalized bribery of various forms.  Politicians feel free to act in their own interests after getting elected rather than actually representing the people who elected them.  More and more Americans from all across the political spectrum are waking up to this fact.  This is leading to both cynicism and sometimes a sense of hopelessness.

I strongly believe the first step we need to take as a citizenry is to join together in a way that sends a strong and clear message to our country and the world that says Americans want a government that is actually responsive to the people that are governed.  We need to stand up and say we want a legitimate and true democracy.  We need to do this in a way that cannot be ignored by the politicians, the media, or the world.  Most importantly we need to do it in a way that speaks to each of us as citizens and demonstrates the power we have when we act together.

Such a message will build solidarity and hope in our country.  The road to reforming our democracy is a long and hard one.  It is one that we can only walk together as a people and we can only do that if enough people feel it is possible.  We will need support and participation of every day Americans who are not political activists.  We will also need support and participation of disenchanted Americans from all across the political spectrum.  Reforming our democracy cannot be a partisan issue or a partisan process.  We are all citizens and all want a fair chance to have our voices and ideas heard.

I spoke briefly and rather inelegantly last night during the FDL member webinar about an idea I have about a way to send this message.  In this post I will lay out a strategy that I believe is pragmatic, practical, and has a reasonable chance to work.  The basic idea is to run a campaign not for a particular candidate but instead against both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The genesis for this idea is that both parties are rather hopelessly corrupt and non-responsive to the citizens at this time, yet the structure of our system does not offer meaningful opportunity for 3rd party or independent candidates.

According to Wikipedia a protest vote “is often considered to be a clear sign of the lack of popular legitimacy and roots of representative democracy, as depressed voter turnout endangers the credibility of the whole voting system” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protest_vote).  To my knowledge there has never been a coordinated protest vote (or no confidence) campaign (please share in the comments if you are aware of such a movement).  This would be a new experiment in grassroots democracy.  A coordinated protest vote campaign would encourage as many voters as possible to cast protest votes for actual people, but people who are not affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties.  Rather than promoting a specific candidate such a campaign would encourage voters to cast a protest vote for any 3rd party, independent, or write in candidate they wish.  It would be extremely important that these votes are valid and counted.

The goal  of this campaign would be an unprecedented number of votes in the “other” category and as few votes for the winner as possible.  In the unlikely (i.e. impossible) dream scenario the “other” category would actually “win” a plurality and the winner of the election would end up with less than 33% of the vote.  This would essentially be a vote of no confidence by the population at large.  This is not likely to happen but I don’t believe it is necessary to make a strong statement either.  Even 10-15% of the vote going to the “other” category would be an amazing accomplishment.  This would unprecedented and would be very hard for the media and the world to ignore and would provide a foundation to build on in the future.

In order to make something like this work we will need to ease fears many people will have about wasting their vote.  We cannot send people to the polls blind.  Most voters will need some assurance that their vote is going to have the intended effect in order to consider vote for a candidate that will not win.  The best way I have thought of to do this is a pledge system.  Kickstarter is a model we could look at (www.kickstarter.com).

If we attempt a 2012 election strategy using a pledge system we will want to think deeply about how to design the most effective pledge system we can.  Some initial thoughts I have follow.

First, I think a campaign goal would be very important.  We could target 1 million votes, 10 million votes, etc.  There are many here at FDL who would be much better at identifying an achievable, yet ambitious goal.

Second, in order to bring as many pledges into the system as early as possible and collect as much information as possible from interested voters we will want to allow conditional pledges.  A conditional pledge would allow a voter to make a pledge to vote for a 3rd party, independent, or write in only if enough other voters join them or if certain candidates were not nominated by one of the legacy parties.  They would state in their pledge how many others they feel are required in order to make their protest vote worthwhile.  This would allow us to get a pulse for both how many people are willing to cast a protest vote if they feel it is meaningful and at what level people feel makes their protest vote meaningful.  This could be very powerful information to have.

Third, the pledge is not a vote so we will need to allow the pledge to be modified if a voter changes their mind and is willing to tell us.  The more realistic information we have the better off we would be.

Finally, in addition to pledging votes, such a system could also allow for pledging of donations – both immediate and donations that only kick in after a specified level of funding is reached.  This would be one method of raising funds for the campaign.

With enough pledging this campaign has the potential to dramatically affect voter turnout.  In the past many voters who are not happy with the mainstream candidates they are presented with decide voting is not worth their time.  Many will certainly still feel this way, yet a coordinated campaign presenting them with an option to say the oligarchs do not represent them may be compelling.  I believe this campaign could motivate many non-traditional voters, especially youth voters.  There is so much cynicism in America today that needs a way to be heard.

There are obviously many issues that would need to be worked out to make such a pledge system practical.  Pledge spam is an obvious potential issue.  Pledges that fall through in the voting booth is another.  I am confident that we can work through these issues and identify workably mitigation strategies.  For example, we can probably come up with a statistical model that would be in the right ballpark in converting pledges to votes.

There are many additional questions to consider.  What elections would we target?  I would propose focusing on the presidential election as most symbolic but also encouraging or possibly facilitating pledging and protest votes for congressional and state elections.  Others here may have a better insight into where this kind of protest vote campaign could be most effective and send the strongest message.  This decision should be made using the collective wisdom of the community.  We could coordinate with independent and 3rd party candidates in these elections as they would stand to gain from the protest vote movement.  If this campaign were to really take off debates and possibly even a convention could be organized next year during the election cycle to bring even more attention to the movement.

One of the first steps in making this happen will be building a broad coalition of grassroots activists and bloggers from across the political spectrum.  The good news here is that FDL has some experience in non-partisan activism.  We can build on that and work to identify grassroots communities (not astroturf!) across the political spectrum with whom we can work on this campaign.  I believe there are many here and elsewhere willing to set aside partisan differences to send the message that we are tired of the corrupt Kabuki democracy that exists in America today.  I mostly participate here and am not too familiar with the broader political blogosphere.  I’m hoping some of you can mention grassroots political blogs or communities of any leaning that might be a good partners in this campaign.  Please don’t be shy in the comment thread!  Let’s get the discussion going about who else may be interested in collaborating with us on this kind of campaign.

If the community here and elsewhere likes this idea we go ahead with it we will need a coordinated media strategy as well.  I would not expect much media coverage in the beginning, but there is a long runway before the 2012 elections.  There is lots of time to plan and to start building pledges.  The more interest we can generate on the net the harder it will be for the media to ignore.  We may also find interest among some celebrities who could help promote the campaign.  One obvious example here would be Jesse Ventura.  He has been advocating a strong protest vote for a long time.  If we start doing the legwork to build protest vote campaign I think it is very likely that he would get involved and help us get exposure in the media.  Regardless of how anybody feels about him or his policies he does have the ability to get onto mainstream media and supports this kind of strategy.

Finally, on election day we would need election monitors to ensure that valid protest votes are actually counted and reported correctly.  I assume there are folks here who have experience with this sort of thing.  Hopefully you can comment on the feasibility of doing this when it is valid protest votes cast for independent, 3rd party, or write in candidates we care about and not votes for specific candidates.

In summary, I believe the first step to restoring true democracy is gaining the recognition that there are millions of us who feel that this is necessary, are fed up with corruption, and are willing to use the power we were granted by the constitution (our votes) to say this.  I believe a pledge system can work to provide reassurance that votes will not be wasted.  I also believe that if we are able to gather enough pledges they alone will send a message and may have the potential of become a topic of discussion in the mainstream campaigns.  It will also tell the world clearly that the oligarchs do not represent the regular folks in America.

I know I am not alone when I say that failure and restoration of democracy is the largest issue we face and should be the focus of our campaign efforts in 2012.  If we can force this issue into the mainstream discussion it may be the beginning of change we really can believe in.

UPDATE:
I came across an interesting link about protest voting in Russia from RT.

UPDATE 2:
Thanks to the suggestion of one_outer I have cross posted over at Daily Paul to gauge the libertarian reaction to this idea. Head on over if you’re curious to see what they think and help encourage them to consider joining us in a coalition…

UPDATE 3:
Ok, first lesson from the Ron Paul site. They are very sensitive to the difference between the words democracy and republic. They understand democracy as tyranny of the majority where 51% can take constitutional rights away from 49%. We will need to be sensitive to this. They are strong believers in individual freedom and constitutionally protected civil rights. That is the reason they are passionate about the difference they perceive between democracy (as they define it) and republic. If any of you head over there please be aware of this and try not to stir up this distraction. Let’s try to stay focused on our shared objectives (getting rid of the oligarchy).

UPDATE 4:
Please use the twitter hash #noconfidence2012 to discuss if you’re on twitter. There have been lots of tweets and nobody has used this hash tag yet. Using the hash tag will help to start a discussion on Twitter as well so please do this!

UPDATE 5:
I submitted this post to reddit this morning. Please help it out here.

UPDATE 6:
greenwarrior has provided another interesting link. This one regarding protest votes for non-human candidates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-human_electoral_candidates.

UPDATE 7:
JZ has provided us with another interesting link about the None of the Above voting option. It turns out that this is a valid ballot action in some jurisdictions. Most interesting here to me was the U.K. NOTA party which was formed to get around their lack of this ballot option.

UPDATE 8:
OhioGringo has provided us with some great historical info about how our current parties and the New Deal came to be. I have not fact checked it so please let me know if OhioGringo was in error in any way.

The Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson started out as protest votes against the remnants of the Federalist party and the then invincible Democratic-Republican Party. The Republican Party started out with protest votes against the pro-slavery Democrats and Whigs. The Populist Party was a protest vote against the excesses of capitalism that led to early 20th Century Progressive reforms. The one million votes that Communist candidates for President got in 1932 were protest votes that forced the Democrats to actually implement the New Deal.

UPDATE 9:
This post is currently doing pretty well in the Democratic Socialists, Green Party, Election Reform, and US Politics categories on reddit. Please head over there and help it out. The reddit button on this page only votes for it on the main reddit page, not the topic sub sections.

UPDATE 10:
I have answered commonly asked questions about this idea here.

UPDATE 11:
My latest post covers Pledge Based Activism in detail. This is a concept for a powerful new tool for internet organizing and social media activism. This tool is central to the No Confidence Protest Vote 2012 strategy.

UPDATE 12:
I took a stab at a list of criteria that could help to separate truly independent candidates from those who would support empire and oligarchy despite being independent from the legacy parties.