"They must be trying to hide from the public who their donors are," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Democracy 21. "This is a very strange way for a group to act that is complaining about the state of American politics."
Dan Winslow, the group's general counsel, said Americans Elect became a 501(c)4 to fit its civic engagement mission. He argued that political advocacy is not its primary purpose because it is seeking to create a new nominating process, not advocating for a specific candidate.
"It's somewhat untrodden ground," he acknowledged, adding that "we believe we have a good-faith basis to proceed."
Americans Elect grew out of a similar effort called Unity08, which attempted to launch an independent presidential ticket in 2008. But it struggled to raise money and suspended its efforts after the Federal Election Commission ruled it had to abide by strict contribution limits governing political committees.
In March 2010, a federal Court of Appeals overturned the FEC decision, finding that Unity08 was not technically a political committee because it was not backing a specific candidate.
Organizers moved quickly to restart the project. Americans Elect now plans to hold an online convention in June 2012 that will be open to any registered voters who sign up. They will select a presidential ticket from a slate of candidates, all of whom will have been required to pick a running mate from a different political party.
"Isn't it clear someday we'll all vote this way?" asked Joshua Levine, the group's chief technology officer, who held the same position at E-Trade. "So why not now?"
To achieve its goal of a presence on all 50 state ballots, the group has already hired 50 employees and 60 vendors to tackle an array of technological, legal and logistical challenges.
Kellen Arno, an associate at Carlsbad-based Arno Political Consultants who is running the national field operation, said that in California alone it had employed 1,500 signature gatherers. To meet its goals, the group needs to sign up to 500,000 additional voters around the country by the year's end.
Still, out of the hundreds of campaigns his firm has worked on, "I would put it in the top 20 of the easiest to get signatures for," Arno said. "There's a real hunger out there."
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.