The group is run by Peter Ackerman, once a close associate of ’80s junk-bond king Michael Milken and chairman emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He has focused much of his attention and wealth on promoting regime change overseas through “nonviolent conflict” by distributing training documentaries and developing video games for dissidents, according to a 2005 profile in the New Republic. (Through a spokeswoman, Ackerman declined an interview.)
The creaky two-party mechanism back home, however, is proving a tougher target.
Last week was supposed to be the first week of online voting on the Americans Elect site, when anyone anywhere could click to endorse practiced politicians or to draft neophytes. But the candidate choices have remained decidedly low-profile, and traffic is meager on the site, which cost $9 million to construct. Scrambling to avert failure, Americans Elect has postponed online voting for a month.
Third-party groups often form around a personality or a set of ideas. Ross Perot inspired independents by talking about debt reform in 1992. There was the Green Party crusade of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Unity08’s effort to transform New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into an independent. Americans Elect, by contrast, offers an organizational framework to a possible presidential candidate who doesn’t need to tap private funds or enlist single-issue radicals.
The group is still on the lookout for a Goliath-toppling personality. “There’s a short list,” said chief executive Kahlil Byrd, without sharing names. How many? “Negative eight,” he said, and his spokeswoman repeated the cryptic tally. As in less than zero? Byrd would only clarify: “More than four.”
Without a candidate’s strengths to promote, Americans Elect’s weaknesses have become more apparent.
In the eyes of some experts and reform activists, Americans Elect’s nonprofit status as a “social-welfare organization” allows it to avoid disclosure of donors while operating, in some ways, like a PAC or a party. Also, the Web site has security problems, as voters can register through multiple e-mail addresses. And, according to Byrd, a “clarification” in Americans Elect bylaws recently instructed that future fundraising would aim to repay donors so that none, including Ackerman, would have contributed more than $10,000. According to Byrd, Ackerman has donated $8 million of the group’s $30 million budget.
But here’s a number that could give Americans Elect clout: 50 states with ballot access, a goal the group has more than halfway met. No major campaign could afford to ignore the group if it achieved that feat, according to political professionals from both major parties. The Americans Elect “unity ticket” might not catapult to the White House, but it could prove a spoiler for one party or the other.