Web’s party crashers

Americans Elect pushes online convention

Ten years from now, it is not morning in America, but time for a “wake-up call,” as the president sits in the Oval Office and talks turkey with the American people: The economy is still suffering from decades of stagnation and high unemployment, China is the wealthiest nation on Earth and India, too, is about to surpass the United States.

That’s the dire scenario put forth by writer-director George Nolfi in a Web spot he created for Americans Elect, the latest — and, its supporters believe, best — chance to break the stranglehold the two parties have on the presidential election.

The idea is that with President Obama and Mitt Romney all but certain as the major party nominees, it won’t be too long before blocs of voters sour on the choices.

But rather than pursue the kind of third-party campaign waged by Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, the goal of Americans Elect is to obtain ballot access in all 50 states for a ticket that will be chosen via a series of online primaries and an online convention. Any registered voter who passes certification (no donation required) is eligible to be a delegate in a process that will winnow dozens if not hundreds of potential candidates down to a field of six, with the final Americans Elect ticket chosen via the online convention June 12.

Although Americans Elect may not have entered the public consciousness, its backers hope that will change in the coming weeks. Starting May 8, the process will begin to winnow down the field of potential nominees, in a caucus that will take up to three rounds of balloting. Buddy Roemer, who ran for the GOP nomination, has the most support of all declared candidates, with more than 3,800 backers as of last week. Republican Ron Paul, also who ran, has the most support of all draft candidates, with just over 8,200 backers. Other draft candidates include Jon Huntsman and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

While there is uncertainty as to who will emerge as the ultimate choice — one caveat is that the candidate presumably has to agree to run — what is definite is that they have to pick a running mate from a different party. It’s in the Americans Elect rule book. As of last week, 400,000 people had signed up online to be delegates, and the org had obtained ballot access in 25 states.

The idea behind the process is not just to make things more democratic, but to provide a solution to partisan gridlock.

Nolfi became interested in Americans Elect the way many did: a column written in the New York Times last summer by Thomas Friedman, in which he talked of the org’s ability to “remove the barriers to real competition … and let the people in.”

“I had always been interested in whether there is a way to put pressure on the two-party system, which had seemed to run off the rails,” Nolfi said in a recent interview on Variety’s Wilshire & Washington podcast. He had been curious about third-party candidates, but never thought them realistic. “They were more idiosyncratic,” Nolfi said. “What was interesting for me … was that (Americans Elect) had thought through the process in such a comprehensive way that it really made me believe that there was a way to change the system.”

While it is still seems more than likely that the majority of showbiz will back President Obama, based on his wide lead in fundraising figures, Americans Elect has drawn a hefty list of notables to sit on its board of advisers, including Nolfi, Michael Eisner and Brit-born reality-TV mogul Mark Burnett, who became an American citizen in 1990.

Yet as pure and lofty as the org pitches its intentions, it has run up against cynicism over the way it is funded, and whether its ultimate effect will be not to re-center American politics, but rather to serve as a spoiler and help hand the election to either Obama or Romney.

The cost of operations and ballot access is expected to be around $35 million, but the suspicions over funding have been inevitable, and were triggered because the org is set up as a nonprofit, not a political party, and donors don’t have to be disclosed. What is known is that investment banker Peter Ackerman anted up $1.5 million in seed money, and, according to CNN, that figure has grown to to $5 million. The org says on its website that it encourages its funders to disclose who they are, but “they also know that it’s hard being among the first to publicly support something that challenges an entrenched and powerful establishment.”

Elliot Ackerman, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is chief operating officer of Americans Elect (and Peter Ackerman’s son), says that some 7,000 individual donors have contributed to the org. He challenges the idea that Americans Elect is fixing to “spoil” the race, noting polling that shows the public’s desire for an independent or “unity” ticket would take equally from both parties. “And that ticket, with the right message, can win,” he says.

That messaging is where Nolfi has stepped up. In addition to the “wake-up call” spot, he’s created another that features D.C. politicians and lobbyists doing the hokey pokey.

It is amusing and catchy, but Nolfi believes the idea can take root not just because it’s accessible, but because it represents the public consciousness.

“The disatisfaction and desperation for change is so strong that when people see (Americans Elect) is inherently a centrist process, I think there is going to be a massive upswell of interest,” he says. “I think it is coming, and it is coming soon.”

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