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Web primary aims to find third option for president

Millions raised to secure ballot access

‘This is a way to blow up the status quo,’ said Mark McKinnon, a media strategist who aided the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain.

Frustrated by the gridlock in Washington, a well-funded bipartisan group of activists and political professionals plans to give voters a third choice for president in 2012.

They want to choose a candidate through a national nominating process on the Internet, and have the candidate prequalified for the ballot in all 50 states. The blueprint calls for the presidential candidate to choose a running mate from another party - or no party at all.

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While some of the organizers were behind a similar effort in 2008 that collapsed for lack of funding, this new group has raised 10 times as much money - more than $20 million - and is confident it can pull it off.

“This is a way to blow up the status quo,’’ said Mark McKinnon, a veteran media strategist. McKinnon is a volunteer adviser to Americans Elect, an 18-month-old advocacy group that is emerging with its plans for a second way to choose a president.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be big or little, but it’s going to happen,’’ said McKinnon, whose Republican campaigns include George W. Bush’s two presidential victories and John McCain’s 2008 defeat. He also worked for Texas Democrat Ann Richards. “There’s a huge appetite for change and disruption. We are in uncharted waters,’’ he said before taking part last week in a panel discussion, “How Americans will select their next president,’’ at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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McCain predicted last week that the failures of the two major parties will produce another party, which he described as “the Fed-Up Party,’’ but stopped short of endorsing the Americans Elect idea.

There have been many unsuccessful third-party or independent candidacies for president. The last to win any electoral votes was George C. Wallace, running as the American Independent Party candidate in 1968. He received 13.5 percent of the vote and 46 electoral votes in five states of the Deep South. More recently, business tycoon Ross Perot of the Reform Party received almost 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 but fell to about 8 percent four years later. In 2000, Democrats blamed Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy for Republican George W. Bush’s victory, maintaining he drew votes in Florida that would have tipped the state, and the Electoral College, to Al Gore.

But the current combustible political climate makes a third-party candidacy more feasible, according to survey research done last spring for Americans Elect by veteran pollster Douglas Schoen, whose political clients include Bill Clinton during his 1996 presidential reelection campaign. Schoen’s survey of 6,000 likely voters found that more than half were dissatisfied with the two-party system and favor a third major option. “While solid majorities want an alternative third party ticket on the ballot, around one-quarter say they are very likely to actually vote for such a ticket, depending on how the question is asked.’’

Kahlil Byrd, chief executive of Washington-based Americans Elect, told the Harvard audience that the organization has raised $21 million of the $30 million it estimates it would need to nominate a ticket and qualify it for the November 2012 ballot in every state.

The group has secured ballot status in eight states, including Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona, and expects to be qualified in 28 by the end of the year, he said. The 22 remaining states, including Massachusetts, do not allow the process to begin until the year of the general election.

Byrd, a Republican who has worked for Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts and a Democrat, described the effort as “reimagining a new way to run elections.’’

The organization, he said, is “a very different and expansive undertaking’’ that has gathered more than 1.9 million signatures for its petitions. One million individuals have visited the organization’s website, americanselect.org.

He is not the only Americans Elect official with a Bay State connection. State Representative Daniel B. Winslow, Republican of Norfolk, is the group’s chief legal counsel. Winslow, who served about two years as counsel to Governor Mitt Romney, supports Romney in the Republican presidential nominating process.

Because he is an outside contractor, Winslow said, he is exempt from corporate bylaws requiring neutrality by officers and directors.

“I want to live in an America where I agonize over great choices on the ballot, not the lesser of two evils,’’ he said of his reason for working for the reform group.

The process will begin next month, with participants beginning the nomination procedure online and determining a platform based on questions that candidates will be asked to take a position on. A virtual convention is scheduled to be held, with online voting to begin in April and end by June.

The six top finishers in the first round must declare a running mate from a party other than their own. For example a Democrat must run with a Republican or independent. A Republican or independent must also split the ticket. A series of elimination runoffs will be held until one ticket gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

Americans Elect has developed what it says will be a secure system that will be able to verify that participants are registered voters. The development of the technology was overseen by Joshua Levine, former chief technology officer of E-Trade Financial.

The group has come under fire, accused of a lack of transparency and operating under rules that allow a self-appointed board of directors to name a candidate certification committee.

That committee, in turn, can disqualify candidates who fail, in their estimation, to meet “criteria of demonstrated achievements based on qualifications of past presidents and vice presidents.’’

Last week, in an opinion piece for Politico, a California law professor raised questions about the selection process.

“While it is providing voters a path to choose a presidential ticket through the democratizing force of the Internet, the process can, in fact, be overruled by a small board of directors, who organized the group,’’ wrote professor Richard Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

“Professor Hasen is just wrong and doesn’t understand Americans Elect,’’ Byrd replied in an e-mail. The group “is purely a nominating process that is putting the power directly into the hands of every registered voter.’’

Americans Elect is organized under the Internal Revenue Code as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization established to promote social welfare. It is not required to disclose the identity or the amounts given by its donors, which has also brought criticism.

Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer, said in a phone interview: “It’s no surprise that what Americans Elect is doing is not particularly popular with the Democratic or Republican parties at this point.’’ As a result, he said some of the early donors, numbering several hundred, are hesitant to disclose their involvement now, he said.

“Some of them will disclose and some have asked to have more time,’’ said Ackerman, a Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the son of Peter Ackerman, a founder, chairman, and major funder of Americans Elect. Peter Ackerman is managing director of Rockport Capital, a private investment firm.

Byrd said any donation in excess of $10,000 is considered a seed-money loan the organization intends to repay.

Americans Elect is a direct descendant of Unity ’08, an advocacy group that attempted a similar nominating process but collapsed for lack of funds in early 2008. McKinnon said the new organization is more sophisticated and organized.

Who could become candidates under this reform effort?

“Think of all the people who believe they should be president, and who won’t have to run in the primaries or pay for ballot access,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of people.’’

“I think some interesting people are going to show up,’’ McKinnon said.

It is an open question, but during the Harvard forum, the strategist from Texas ticked off an intriguing - if purely speculative - list.

His what-if list includes two former Republican governors, Jon Huntsman of Utah and Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, who are currently vying for the GOP nomination but are struggling to gain traction and hoping for a breakthrough in the New Hampshire primary.

Roemer was elected governor as a Democrat but switched his party affiliation near the end of his tenure. McKinnon also mentioned two current governors, John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado, and Mitch Daniels, Republican of Indiana.

There was also a sitting senator, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who failed in a 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination and has since become an independent. Others on McKinnon’s list were former senators Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana; former television news anchor Tom Brokaw; and a pair of secretaries of state, both African-Americans, under George W. Bush - retired general Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com
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