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Americans Elect falters in bid to ignite third-party fever

Online voting plan postponed, Web traffic light

WASHINGTON - Last July, a well-funded nonprofit group called Americans Elect announced it had found a new and more honorable path to the White House. It would bypass the primaries, the founders said, via the Internet.

By empowering Web visitors, the group would skip early-state hucksterism and favor-seeking donors. Using viral marketing savvy, the organizers would advance a third-party “unity’’ ticket without the usual cynicism, circus acts, and, it turns out, scrutiny. They aimed, in short, to take the politics out of politics.

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The group is run by Peter Ackerman, once a close associate of 1980s junk-bond king Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert 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.

Earlier this month, online voting was supposed to begin on the Americans Elect site; 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 Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York 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 analysts and 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 website 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 fund-raising 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.

“Americans Elect is a big, bold, hairy experiment,’’ said Mark McKinnon, the Texas political pro who helped elect and reelect President George W. Bush. As an official adviser, McKinnon predicted that an Americans Elect ticket would garner the 15 percent in public polls needed to qualify for a lectern in the general election debates.

The leading declared candidate, Buddy Roemer, Louisiana’s former governor whose GOP primary bid never took off, has garnered only 3,177 supporters on the Americans Elect website. Behind him is Rocky Anderson, once the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, who has 1,722 supporters. (There are also 300 or so “draft’’ candidates, nominated by any of the registered online voters.)

Still, Roemer said he has major reservations about the organization.

“Full disclosure is a paramount issue with me,’’ Roemer said. “Americans Elect does not meet this standard.’’

Jane Harman, a centrist Democrat who represented a Southern California House district before taking over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recently, let Ackerman know that the secrecy was a problem. “People should know,’’ Harman said, “especially if his goal is to move the national parties to the center,’’ an aim she shares.

“I don’t feel threatened by [Americans Elect]. I am just bewildered by it,’’ said David Axelrod, one of President Obama’s top campaign strategists.

“It seems a little incoherent to say to Americans, ‘You decide. But just in case we don’t like what you decide, we’ve appointed a board of elites to decide who you can choose from.’

“Why not fully disclose who is funding this, so people can judge who is behind this?’’

Ackerman’s enlistment of advisers is formidable. Heavyweights on his Americans Elect boards include a former governor and Cabinet member (Republican Christine Todd Whitman), a recent overseer of US intelligence (John Negroponte), a former chief executive of Disney (Michael Eisner), and a Democratic pollster (Doug Schoen).

Whitman said the organization is a savvy device to amplify centrist players. As a board member, she said, she understands why donors are nervous about going public.

“It’s a risk,’’ she said. “We’re all being perceived as bucking our respective parties.’’

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