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Americans Elect seeks to upend primary system

It hopes to select an alternate presidential ticket through an online, open convention. Its status as a social welfare group has enabled it to keep private its financiers even as it tries to qualify as a new party.

July 28, 2011|By Matea Gold, Washington Bureau
  • Above, a screenshot from the Americans Elect website. The group says its goal is to upend the traditional party primary process by selecting an alternative presidential ticket through an online, open nominating convention.
Above, a screenshot from the Americans Elect website. The group says its… (Americans Elect )

Reporting from Washington — County registrar offices across California on Thursday will begin receiving the product of an audacious enterprise — nearly 1.6 million signatures collected by Americans Elect, a group attempting to ride exasperation with the nation's political leaders into a place on the ballot in all 50 states by 2012.

Its mission is to upend the traditional party primary process by selecting an alternate presidential ticket through an online, open nominating convention.

The goal is bold, but the manner in which Americans Elect is pursuing its aims is highly unorthodox. Although it is attempting to qualify as a new party in California and other states, the group's legal designation is that of a nonpolitical, tax-exempt social welfare organization.

Under that designation, Americans Elect has been able to keep private its financiers, raising questions about what forces are driving the massive undertaking. The group has labored largely under the radar for the last 16 months, raising $20 million while successfully gaining ballot access in Arizona, Alaska, Kansas and Nevada. It is seeking certification in Michigan, Hawaii, Missouri and Florida besides California, with an additional 18 states in the pipeline before the end of the year.

Gaining 50-state ballot access is no easy feat — independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot managed to do so in 1992 and 1996, whereas Ralph Nader got on only 45 state ballots during his fifth presidential bid in 2008.

But Americans Elect is bringing considerable might to the effort. In California, where it hopes to join the six currently recognized political parties, its tally of signatures could come close to the more than 1.6 million that triggered the 2003 gubernatorial recall. (The secretary of state has until Sept. 25 to verify the petitions and certify Americans Elect as a party.)

Leaders of the organization say that they are motivated solely by the desire to open the political process to more voices, a compelling message at a time when partisan gridlock has triggered rampant public disgust.

"The only political philosophy we have is that people should be greater than parties," said Elliot Ackerman, the group's chief operating officer.

Still, many of the group's experienced political operatives hail from centrist circles: Chief Executive Kahlil Byrd is a GOP strategist who worked for Massachusetts' Democratic governor, Deval Patrick. Pollster Doug Schoen worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign, as well as for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent.

One of the main financial backers is Elliot's father, Peter Ackerman, a private investment executive who made tens of millions of dollars working with junk bond trader Michael Milken in the 1980s. He alone has given at least $1.55 million to Americans Elect, according to tax documents the group filed last year while it was briefly organized as a political organization. In October, it changed its designation to a 501(c)4 social welfare group, as first noted by blogger Jim Cook, who has been tracking its activities.

Together, between 300 and 400 donors have given Americans Elect $20 million, according to Byrd, with no contribution exceeding $5 million. The major donations are technically low-interest loans, the bulk of which the organization says it intends to pay back as it widens its contribution base. Eventually it hopes to limit individual donations to no more than $10,000.

The group has an eclectic board of advisors that includes former FBI and CIA chief William H. Webster and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a cofounder of No Labels, a group that seeks to advance partisanship-free politics. (Bloomberg has backed the efforts of No Labels, but a spokeswoman for Americans Elect said he is not involved in its project.)

At least 11 of the 50 board members work in finance, including Kirk Rostron, who places investments for hedge fund managers and is one of a handful of publicly identified contributors to the group.

Elliot Ackerman said Americans Elect does not take any money from special interests or political action committees, adding that it is up to donors to determine whether they want to be identified. "I think that's an unfortunate testament to the status of our political landscape that people feel uncomfortable about disclosing the fact that they're supporting an open nominating process," he said.

Campaign finance reform advocates who are pressing the IRS to issue stricter regulations governing the use of 501(c)4s said they don't buy the notion that Americans Elect is nonpolitical.

They must be trying to hide from the public who their donors are. This is a very strange way for a group to act that is complaining about the state of American politics,” said Fred Wertheimer.

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