Our Common Good

In looking to find a viable, centrist, third-party presidential candidate for moderates who feel left out by both the Democratic and Republican parties, Americans Elect was drawing on roughly two percent of all registered voters for its base of support. As such, it is unsurprising Americans Elect was unable to generate sufficient participation to produce a nominee. While the idea that the two major parties have both abandoned the center may be popular in the opinion sections of several prominent news organizations, that idea does not have much traction with the American people.

Americans Elect, a group that set out to secure ballot access for a yet-to-be-named centrist presidential candidate, has thrown in the towel.

After spending $35 million to create an online nomination process and petition for a line on the ballot in more than half the states — the group’s leaders acknowledged Thursday that they couldn’t find a candidate.

Steve Benen:

At least in the abstract, Americans Elect may have a pitch some voters find compelling. The outfit intends to spend heavily to gain a slot on the presidential ballot nationwide, then create a bipartisan ticket that voters would help choose online. The plan, however, is not without flaws.

Americans Elect hasn’t had much luck finding willing candidates, but it is sitting on tens of millions of dollars and has collected the signatures needed to qualify for several states’ ballots. Complicating matters, the group’s organizers refuse to disclose where its money has come from, and has adopted a series of sketchy measures, including the ability to ignore the results of Americans Elect’s online candidate referendum.

BuzzFeed reports today on another move that’s likely to raise eyebrows.

A deep-pocketed group hoping to field a third candidate in November has quietly shifted its fundraising focus earlier this month to serve a curious goal, a spokeswoman has acknowledged to BuzzFeed: All money raised by Americans Elect will, for the forseeable future, be given to the millionaires who created it. […]

Americans Elect, whose leaders have said they expect to spend $40 million this year getting on the ballot in 50 states and building a sophisticated platform for a secure online primary, casts the move as one in service of its populist goal of having no donor give more than $10,000. But its immediate effect may make it extremely difficult for the group, which is heavily bankrolled by its chairman, financier and philanthropist Peter Ackerman, to raise any more money at all, and particularly the kind of small, grassroots donations it seeks on its website.

So, interested voters are expected to pony up, not to advance the Americans Elect cause, but to pay back the millionaires who secretly got the group up and running? It seems like a tough sell.

I realize Americas Elect is in a position to have an effect on the presidential race, and has secured a ballot line in several key states. But as near as I can tell, it’s an overly secretive, well-financed gimmick, eager to play electoral mischief for reasons that are known only to its leaders.

Getting a third party or independent candidate on the ballot nationally is a steep climb — since states have different qualifying rules. So Americans Elect presents a rare opportunity for such a candidate to gain immediate credibility — as well as an ability to focus on the race itself and not the battles over ballot access.

This offers an opportunity that Colbert may find too tempting to pass up.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently noted that Colbert surpassed (real) presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, a former Louisiana governor, as the sixth most popular “draft candidate” on the Americans Elect website — a lead Roemer has since retaken.

But it is still early in this process. More than two million people have registered on the Americans Elect website. But so far only a few thousand have expressed preferences for which candidate to draft. Many of Colbert’s fans would have ample time to register.

If Colbert pushed hard on his Comedy Central program for the Americans Elect nomination (or, if he didn’t, but if his Super PAC—retransferred to Stewart—did so), he would have a real shot at getting the most votes in the Internet plebiscite. Any registered U.S. voter who is willing to provide voter identification information (and give up the right to a secret ballot) can vote in the election, and Colbert has legions of loyal fans. Remember how they mobbed him when he made an appearance last year before the Federal Election Commission.

A Colbert candidacy is not that far-fetched. Public Policy Polling already polled a three-way race with Obama, Mitt Romney and Colbert as the Americans Elect candidate – and found Colbert would get 13 percent.

But a Colbert run could make a circus out of the Americans Elect process, and take oxygen away from other potential candidates. Jon Huntsman has recently been flirting with an Americans Elect presidential bid. Right now, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a real GOP presidential candidate, is the highest candidate on the “draft” list. Roemer has declared interest in the Americans Elect nomination. Political analysts speculated about a possible Sen. Olympia Snowe-David Boren ticket. What would become of them if Colbert urged his followers to register and vote?

I don’t like or trust Americans Elect - when there are hedge fund folks behind an organization that won’t reveal donors there is a lot to be cautious about - BUT I just might have to register to give Colbert a vote.

The GOP presidential contest isn’t over, but Paul’s backers have made him the early favorite in Americans Elect’s effort to draft an independent contender.

Americans Elect is an organization whose stated goal is “to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters — not the political system.”

To accomplish this goal, Americans Elect already has qualified on a number of state ballots as a political party in order to run a candidate for president in 2012 who will be nominated by citizens using the Internet.

An article published by the Associated Press states about Americans Elect, “The group, whose backers include both Republicans and Democrats anxious to open up the political process, has raised $22 million so far and secured ballot slots in Florida, Alaska, Nevada, Kansas, Arizona and Michigan. It has submitted signatures for certification in California, Utah and Hawaii.”

At the same time, Americans Elect claims to be a “social welfare” organization eligible for status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization. Such groups do not have to disclose their donors.

However, a political party is not entitled to be treated as a “social welfare” organization under federal tax laws and is required to disclose its donors. Period. The idea that a political party — whose whole purpose is to nominate and elect candidates for office — can also be a “social welfare” organization for tax purposes is an oxymoron.

Whatever one thinks about the goals of Americans Elect, the organizations should not be misusing the tax laws or circumventing the campaign finance disclosure laws.

Americans Elect should be registered as a section 527 “political organization” under the tax laws, which would require it to disclose its donors.

Frankly - from what I have read about this organization (admittedly, fairly little), I fear it is simply a cleverly camouflaged plan to make sure a Republican wins the presidential election.  I don’t just distrust them - I kind of fear them, because we all know that many of us - even those who have worked in politics and understand how hard the game is to play - are pretty disappointed by some of the steps Obama has taken and many of our Democratic Representatives.  But much, much worse than an Obama second term or even a Blue Dog - is a Republican.  Especially a Republican making Supreme Court apointments.

Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter to tax authorities calling for a prompt investigation of the Republican-leaning Crossroads GPS and American Action Network; the Democratic group Priorities USA; and a centrist group, Americans Elect.

The watchdogs based their request on the terms of the U.S. tax code. The Internal Revenue Service exempts non-profits — called 501(c)(4) organizations — from income taxes because they promote social welfare.

“The idea that these organizations are social welfare groups is nonsense,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said in a statement. “The overriding purpose of these groups is to participate in and influence elections, which makes them ineligible for tax-exempt status.”

He said the groups seek to be considered 501(c)(4) organizations to keep the donors financing their campaign expenditures secret.

- and could hand the election to a Republican.

Imagine what our election system might look like if it were designed today: No Byzantine electoral college, no long lines on a random Tuesday, no closed primaries that force candidates into the arms of their party’s special interests. Modern Madisons and Hamiltons would try to devise a process that’s open, online, citizen-driven, and capable of producing leaders that can unify the nation once in office.

That’s the idealist vision driving a new group, Americans Elect, which has quietly collected enough signatures to secure a 2012 ballot line in eight states, including Arizona, Michigan, and Missouri. They will soon submit an unprecedented 1.6 million signatures in California.

The ballot position they’re securing isn’t for a specific platform, person, or ideology, but rather an entirely new way to elect a president. As Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, explains it, “This isn’t a third party—it’s a second process.”

Here’s how the group envisions it will work: An online convention will take place over a course of two weeks in June 2012. Any registered voter can participate as a delegate, after signing up securely at the newly launched AmericansElect.org. Through a series of interactive online questionnaires, they will be able to seek out potential candidates whose policy positions most closely resemble their own. A party platform will be determined and candidates drafted. A final field of six prospective nominees will then each select a running mate from a different party, with those options eventually winnowed down to a bipartisan ticket that will inherit the Americans Elect ballot line in, the organizers hope, all 50 states.

It’s old-school democracy married to modern technology, marketed to a fertile audience. In May, Gallup found that a majority of Americans support the creation of a third party, including 68 percent of independent voters—and that was before Washington’s debt-ceiling dysfunction. This disconnect is compounded by the fact that Republicans and Democrats still play by Industrial Age rules, even though consumers have shown in every other field that they are no longer satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.

Americans Elect gets this. Like Egypt’s leaderless Facebook revolution, this is a movement without a candidate, happy to create a platform via wiki, and identify potential presidents the way Pandora figures out whether you like Kanye West or Johnny Cash.

The money behind Americans Elect understands disruptive business models. The group’s founder, entrepreneur Peter Ackerman (father of Elliot), started FreshDirect.com, which has upended the New York grocery business by letting customers order food and basics online, delivered straight from a warehouse. He and some 50 other initial donors have loaned the organization $20 million, out of an eventual $30 million budgeted, to be repaid if small donors join on. (Their eventual goal: No single individual will give more than $10,000. The group does not accept donations from PACs, political parties, or industry associations.)

Read it all at The Daily Beast

Before you get excited about this possibility of wrestling some control from the two parties,  I suggest you read the collection of articles on Americans Elect at the IrregularTimes website, such as: Americans Elect Makes Plans to Broker the 2012 Presidential Election:

In such a circumstance, the rules by which Americans Elect would choose a major presidential candidate to endorse is of central importance. If the rules give control to the Americans Elect delegate pool (which any registered voter — sort of — can join), then there would be some aspect of democracy to the endorsement. However, if the rules give primary control to the Americans Elect corporate leadership (which according to bylaw Article 4 appoints itself and cannot be removed by delegate vote), then the unelected leaders of this corporation would be in a position to decide the outcome of a presidential election — and to obtain favorable terms for tipping the outcome in one direction or another.

The rules for an Americans Elect endorsement are not specified in the bylaws — and to date Americans Elect hasn’t even posted these bylaws on its own website. Now is the time to asking Americans Elect questions about those rules. Pay attention to Americans Elect’s answers… or lack of answers.

As part of an effort to provide direct feedback to Americans Elect and give them a chance to explain themselves, and because Americans Elect makes a show of inviting the American people to “ask us anything,” I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to initiate a dialogue with Americans Elect, although it has never responded to my questions or overtures.

Irregular Times seems to be the only site that has been taking some time to examine this movement.  If anyone else has additional info from other sources, pass it on.

UPDATE: Noting Nate Silver’s article on the unfavorable ratings of both parties being at an all time high right now, I think it behooves us to watch what is going on with Americans Elect a bit closer.