County registrar offices across California on Thursday will begin receiving the product of an audacious enterprise — nearly 1.6 million signatures collected by Americans Elect, a group attempting to ride exasperation with the nation's political leaders into a place on the ballot in all 50 states by 2012.
The goal is bold, but the manner in which Americans Elect is pursuing its aims is highly unorthodox. Although it is attempting to qualify as a new party in California and other states, the group's legal designation is that of a nonpolitical, tax-exempt social welfare organization.
Under that designation, Americans Elect has been able to keep private its financiers, raising questions about what forces are driving the massive undertaking. The group has labored largely under the radar for the last 16 months, raising $20 million while successfully gaining ballot access in Arizona, Alaska, Kansas and Nevada. It is seeking certification in Michigan, Hawaii, Missouri and Florida besides California, with an additional 18 states in the pipeline before the end of the year.
Gaining 50-state ballot access is no easy feat — independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot managed to do so in 1992 and 1996, whereas Ralph Nader got on only 45 state ballots during his fifth presidential bid in 2008.
But Americans Elect is bringing considerable might to the effort. In California, where it hopes to join the six currently recognized political parties, its tally of signatures could come close to the more than 1.6 million that triggered the 2003 gubernatorial recall. (The secretary of state has until Sept. 25 to verify the petitions and certify Americans Elect as a party.)
Leaders of the organization say that they are motivated solely by the desire to open the political process to more voices, a compelling message at a time when partisan gridlock has triggered rampant public disgust.
"The only political philosophy we have is that people should be greater than parties," said Elliot Ackerman, the group's chief operating officer.
Still, many of the group's experienced political operatives hail from centrist circles: Chief Executive Kahlil Byrd is a GOP strategist who worked for Massachusetts' Democratic governor, Deval Patrick. Pollster Doug Schoen worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign, as well as for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent.
One of the main financial backers is Elliot's father, Peter Ackerman, a private investment executive who made tens of millions of dollars working with junk bond trader Michael Milken in the 1980s. He alone has given at least $1.55 million to Americans Elect, according to tax documents the group filed last year while it was briefly organized as a political organization. In October, it changed its designation to a 501(c)4 social welfare group, as first noted by blogger Jim Cook, who has been tracking its activities.
Together, between 300 and 400 donors have given Americans Elect $20 million, according to Byrd, with no contribution exceeding $5 million. The major donations are technically low-interest loans, the bulk of which the organization says it intends to pay back as it widens its contribution base. Eventually it hopes to limit individual donations to no more than $10,000.
The group has an eclectic board of advisors that includes former FBI and CIA chief William H. Webster and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a cofounder of No Labels, a group that seeks to advance partisanship-free politics. (Bloomberg has backed the efforts of No Labels, but a spokeswoman for Americans Elect said he is not involved in its project.)
At least 11 of the 50 board members work in finance, including Kirk Rostron, who places investments for hedge fund managers and is one of a handful of publicly identified contributors to the group.
Elliot Ackerman said Americans Elect does not take any money from special interests or political action committees, adding that it is up to donors to determine whether they want to be identified. "I think that's an unfortunate testament to the status of our political landscape that people feel uncomfortable about disclosing the fact that they're supporting an open nominating process," he said.
Campaign finance reform advocates who are pressing the IRS to issue stricter regulations governing the use of 501(c)4s said they don't buy the notion that Americans Elect is nonpolitical.
"They must be trying to hide from the public who their donors are," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Democracy 21. "This is a very strange way for a group to act that is complaining about the state of American politics."
Dan Winslow, the group's general counsel, said Americans Elect became a 501(c)4 to fit its civic engagement mission. He argued that political advocacy is not its primary purpose because it is seeking to create a new nominating process, not advocating for a specific candidate.
"It's somewhat untrodden ground," he acknowledged, adding that "we believe we have a good-faith basis to proceed."
Americans Elect grew out of a similar effort called Unity08, which attempted to launch an independent presidential ticket in 2008. But it struggled to raise money and suspended its efforts after the Federal Election Commission ruled it had to abide by strict contribution limits governing political committees.
In March 2010, a federal Court of Appeals overturned the FEC decision, finding that Unity08 was not technically a political committee because it was not backing a specific candidate.
Organizers moved quickly to restart the project. Americans Elect now plans to hold an online convention in June 2012 that will be open to any registered voters who sign up. They will select a presidential ticket from a slate of candidates, all of whom will have been required to pick a running mate from a different political party.
"Isn't it clear someday we'll all vote this way?" asked Joshua Levine, the group's chief technology officer, who held the same position at E-Trade. "So why not now?"
To achieve its goal of a presence on all 50 state ballots, the group has already hired 50 employees and 60 vendors to tackle an array of technological, legal and logistical challenges.
Kellen Arno, an associate at Carlsbad-based Arno Political Consultants who is running the national field operation, said that in California alone it had employed 1,500 signature gatherers. To meet its goals, the group needs to sign up to 500,000 additional voters around the country by the year's end.