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SALT LAKE CITY -- In a year marked by protest, revolt and grassroots movements, a new group has found a different way to challenge the political status quo: Americans Elect is attempting to redefine presidential politics by allowing Americans to directly nominate a candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
The nonprofit corporation is not a third party, but rather a parallel nominating process that seeks to circumvent more traditional methods of nomination by allowing voters to nominate a presidential candidate via the Internet.
The online convention allows delegates -- any registered voter -- to securely cast a vote for a bipartisan ticket: two members of the same party will not be allowed to run on the same ticket.
"When candidates pick running mates from outside their parties, it's a clear sign that they're working to build the consensus necessary to get things done, and that they'll govern without regard to the partisan interests of either major party," the group argues on its website.
Americans Elect emphasizes equality in voting: every vote counts, "no matter what party you belong to or the date of your state's primary."
Americans Elect has gained ballot status in thirteen states: Utah, Arizona, Ohio, Kansas, Nevada, Arkansas, Michigan, Rhode Island, Florida, Alaska, Colorado, Mississippi and California. It has acquired more than 80 percent of the 2.9 million signatures needed to ensure ballot status nationwide and has raised $22 million of the $30 million needed "to put your choice on the ballot," according to the group.
Of that money, $5.5 million came from investment banker Peter Ackerman, father of Elliot Ackerman, Americans Elect's chief operating officer. Ultimately, the goal of Americans Elect is to limit individual financial contributions to $10,000.
The group has been criticized, though, for failing to make its list of donors public. As a nonprofit organization, it is not required to provide the names of donors. Some have argued, however, that any group that aims to place a presidential candidate on the ballot should not be exempt from rules of disclosure followed by the Democratic and Republican parties.
Americans Elect has said it has chosen not to disclose the names of donors in order to protect the donors from possible retribution. The explanation has not satisfied some, though.
"It's absurd that this group says they want to change the way business is done and they're attempting to run a candidate for President on the ballot in 50 states with secret money," Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign- finance watchdog group Democracy 21, told Time magazine. "If the candidate of Americans Elect were to play a key role in determining the outcome of the 2012 election using secret money to finance their candidate, that would be an extraordinary scandal."
Also drawing criticism is the method of nomination: after a year of successful hacking attempts by groups such as Anonymous, critics of Americans Elect fear the Web-based voting system will be vulnerable to attack.
Americans Elect is aware of the importance of security, according to spokeswoman Ileana Wachtel. Each delegate will be able to print a paper copy of his or her vote, and the corporation has hired Josh Levine, former chief technology officer of E-Trade Financial, to manage the website's security.
The effect Americans Elect may have on the 2012 election is unclear, but the movement is supported by a host of powerful Washington insiders. Board members include Republicans and Democrats, including Mark McKinnon, former President George W. Bush's media strategist, and Dennis Blair, President Obama's former Director of National Intelligence.
Candidates are eligible to submit their names for nomination beginning in January 2012, but former Congressman and governor of Louisiana Buddy Roemer has already announced his intent to throw his hat into the ring. Roemer had previously hoped to run as a traditional candidate, but low name recognition and fundraising numbers undermined his campaign.
It's absurd that this group says they want to change the way business is done and they're attempting to run a candidate for President on the ballot in 50 states with secret money.
Another potential candidate whose name has surfaced in discussions is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, whose lackluster performance in national polls led him to declare Thursday that he would likely drop out of the Republican race if he does not finish in the top three in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary. Huntsman has not made an announcement as to whether he plans to become involved with Americans Elect, though.
The question is whether if Huntsman, or any other candidate, were placed on nationwide ballots as an alternative candidate, he could succeed. Historically, alternative candidates have been more successful at splitting the vote than at winning it, as was the case in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote with incumbent William Howard Taft.
In other instances, third-party candidates have struck a chord with the public but were unable to make anything of it, as in 1992 when Ross Perot won nearly 20 percent of the popular vote but failed to win a single electoral vote. Whether a candidate put forth by Americans Elect could win electoral votes, regardless of popular votes received, is another question that remains unanswered.
It is an unprecedented move to reshape a political landscape that has increasingly come under scrutiny for partisan voting and unwillingness to compromise. As the 2012 election approaches, it remains to be seen if American voters are open to a new system of nominating presidential candidates.