WASHINGTON — Lots of people complain about the shortcomings of the country's two-party system for picking a president. Now a nonpartisan group is gathering millions of petition signatures — and dollars — to offer people a Plan B.
Americans Elect, which grew out of a failed 2008 effort to provide an alternative in the presidential race, aims to secure a slot on the November ballot in all 50 states for a to-be-determined candidate who would be nominated in the nation's first online convention next summer.
The group, whose backers include both Republicans and Democrats anxious to open up the political process, has raised $22 million so far and secured ballot slots in Florida, Alaska, Nevada, Kansas, Arizona and Michigan. It has submitted signatures for certification in California, Utah and Hawaii.
Americans Elect, whose slogan is "pick a president, not a party," appears to be on track to secure ballot access across the country, with 1.9 million signatures collected so far. But how it will effect the 2012 race depends on what kind of candidate its delegates select in next June's online convention, which will be open to any registered voter.
"It's a fascinating experiment in trying to empower the disenfranchised center in American politics," says Will Marshall, one of the group's leaders and the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "It uses the power of the Internet and social media to provide a new means for political participation."
Even Marshall admits, though, that he approaches the effort with some trepidation.
"I'd hate to see a scenario in which a vibrant third choice in some way threw the 2012 election to a right-winger like a Rick Perry or a Michele Bachmann," he says.
Americans Elect rejects the notion its candidate could turn out to be a spoiler and says that putting the choice in the hands — or clicks — of millions of registered voters will ensure the selection of a qualified nominee. Leading candidates for the group's nomination will be required to choose a running mate who is not from their own party to ensure political balance, it says.
Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist who advised George W. Bush in his presidential campaign, says he got involved in the effort because "the system is broken and the traditional parties are only making a bad situation worse." He sees the Americans Elect effort as a reimagining of democracy and how the country selects its leaders.
Getting on the ballot in all 50 states isn't all that unusual: The New Alliance Party's Lenora Fulani did in 1988. The Libertarians have done in multiple times. But none of them garnered a big share of the vote.
Other outsider candidates have been more successful: Ross Perot got 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996; John Anderson, 7 percent in 1980: and George Wallace, 13 percent in 1968. Ralph Nader drew just 3 percent of the vote as a Green Party candidate in 2000, but that included enough liberal votes in Florida to keep Democrat Al Gore from carrying the state and becoming president.
Richard Winger, editor and publisher of Ballot Access News, says the idea that an Americans Elect candidate can't win shouldn't be dismissed outright. There are hundreds of instances of minor candidates being elected to state legislatures, and even a few members of Congress, he says.
And Matt Miller, a fellow at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, says the effort doesn't have to produce a president to have a big impact on national politics.
Perot's strong following in 1992 pushed deficit reduction onto Bill Clinton's agenda when he became president, Miller says.
Ileana Wachtel, a spokeswoman for Americans Elect, says the group is on track to meet its fundraising goal of $30 million. It has collected money from about 3,000 individual small donors and 100 large donors, who aren't required to reveal their identities. Many, she says, "are tied to one of the parties and do not want to deal with recriminations from supporting this alternative." The group, whose leadership includes a number of names from corporate America, accepts no money from special interests or political action committees.
The process of drafting candidates won't begin until December.
Nancy Benac can be followed at http://twitter.com/nbenac