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Nonprofit Seeks To Be New Political Force

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If you want to know just how unhappy Americans are with their two-party government, a group called Americans Elect is ready to tell you.

The nonprofit group has scheduled a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday in a bid to show the Democratic and Republican establishments that voters want a third choice in presidential candidates.

It's a choice Americans Elect hopes to provide. This might sound like a third political party taking the field, but the group says that's not what it is.

'A New Force'

Wall Street investor and philanthropist Peter Ackerman, the chairman of Americans Elect, laid out his hope of what it will become in a speech last year.

"A new force that will come to play in a system that's struggling and that gives so little satisfaction to the American people," he said.

Other new forces have come along in other presidential elections. Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912, Ross Perot and United We Stand in 1992 and Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2000. But that's not what Americans Elect says it's about.

"We're not a political party and don't have an aspiration to be," said Kahlil Byrd, a political consultant and president of Americans Elect.

Americans Elect would operate online. Its website has questionnaires to help voters figure out which issues are most important to them. This week, the names of prospective candidates will start appearing there, too.

Voters can sign up as delegates, gaining the right to help pick a presidential ticket next year. The selection process will spread from April to June.

"We do everything pretty much on the Internet anyway, so this is a way that Americans can have a direct nomination process," Padmananda Rama, the group's deputy press secretary, said at a recent conference.

Bipartisan Support

The group has a long roster of "leadership" figures, including veteran consultants from both parties, raising questions about ulterior motives and ultimate loyalties.

Democrat Les Francis says he signed up with Americans Elect because he wants to save the moderate center of American politics "with the caveat that at some point between now and November of 2012, I may decide I would rather cast my lot with President Obama's re-election."

But if one question is the political impact of Americans Elect, another question involves the group itself and who's financing it. It's a question that can't be answered.

Unlike the regular political parties, Americans Elect has no contribution limits for donors, and there's no disclosure. Several months ago, it changed itself from a political committee to a "social welfare organization" under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.

"The organization is a nonprofit organization that is creating a civic good in the political space," Byrd said.

Funding Questions

Watchdog groups that advocate for more transparency asked the Internal Revenue Service to re-examine Americans Elect's tax status.

"They're going about choosing their presidential ticket differently than the more mainstream political parties, but that doesn't change the fact that their reason for existence is to pick a presidential ticket and then presumably, to get that presidential ticket elected," said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with one of those groups, the Campaign Legal Center.

But at Americans Elect, Byrd says that in today's bitter partisan climate donors would face dangers of retribution.

"We realize that supporting this organization is a small, but significant act of courage, and that people [have] to be encouraged to emerge at their own pace, disclosing whether they've given a dollar or much more than that," he said.

Americans Elect says it has more than 3,000 donors. About a dozen have given at least $100,000 dollars. But only one is identified: Ackerman, the chairman, has put in $5 million.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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