Washington - For all the roller-coaster tumultuousness of the primary season, the general election promises another strange jolt: the likely presence on the ballot in all 50 states of a third-party nominee -- identity, and ideology, to be determined.
This political wild card for the Internet age is Americans Elect, which just secured a spot in California, meaning it has now qualified for the ballot in 13 states and collected signatures in the 17 others that allow signature-gathering the year before the election.
With a war chest of $22 million so far, the group aims to leapfrog the logistical and ideological barriers that limit voters' choices and drive candidates to extremes.
Americans Elect delegates -- any registered voter who signs up online -- will choose a presidential ticket through successive rounds of Internet voting culminating in the choice of a candidate in June. The vice presidential nominee on this unity ticket must come from a different political party.
Visiting the Washington offices of Americans Elect recently, I arrived skeptical and ambivalent. I left impressed -- and still ambivalent.
The impressive part is the group’s combination of organizational prowess and dedication to overcoming political stalemate. I am a recidivist sucker for efforts to forge bipartisan solutions.
The part that leaves me queasy is its use of secret money – Americans Elect doesn't routinely disclose donors -- and the potential for electoral mischief despite its best intentions.
Will Americans Elect become the useful vehicle for a centrist ticket, or is it at risk of being hijacked by, say, the well-organized and Internet-savvy supporters of Ron Paul, who is already the most-tracked candidate on the group's website? Already Donald Trump has left the Republican Party and may be toying with the idea of seeking the Americans Elect ballot line.
The allure of Americans Elect is obvious at a moment when people at the highest levels of government worry that the political system is profoundly broken.
"Fundamental to our theory is that if we can change the way we nominate, we can change the way we govern," says Elliot Ackerman, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran whose father, investment banker Peter Ackerman, provided the $5 million-plus in seed money to launch Americans Elect.
Yet there is a troubling irony in the notion that the only way to repair our flawed democracy involves secret money, and a serious question about whether an organization whose stated aim is to participate in the presidential election -- and has qualified (BEG ITAL)as a political party(END ITAL) on state ballots -- can claim it is a nonprofit organization not required to disclose donors.
Americans Elect argues that secrecy is necessary because its underwriters fear retaliation for challenging the political status quo. Its eventual nominee will comply with ordinary rules requiring disclosure and limiting contributions.
Then there are questions about whether the rules the group has put in place to assure qualified candidates are adequately small-d democratic. A "candidate-certification committee" is empowered to decide which candidates are eligible for nomination and which tickets are sufficiently bipartisan.
The group recently loosened rules to permit a majority vote of delegates, rather than two-thirds, to override the committee. But there is an inherent tension between assuring a qualified, balanced ticket and an open process, a situation that Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod derided as "uber-democracy meets backroom bosses."
Ackerman and his colleagues argue that the moment is ripe for a third-party candidate -- not merely to tip the election a la Ralph Nader 2000, but to win it. When Ross Perot ran in 1992, they note, 39 percent of voters said they were not satisfied with how they were being governed. Today, the dissatisfied number has soared to 81 percent.
OK, but -- going out on a limb -- the Americans Elect candidate will not win in 2012. Effective third-party candidacies thrive when focused around a charismatic candidate -- Perot, Teddy Roosevelt. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, the only announced candidate so far, doesn't fit that bill. Mayor Bloomberg, are you listening? Jon Huntsman, anyone?
Still, Americans Elect could play a role in swing states, where a report by the centrist Democratic group Third Way shows registration among independents up significantly.
Absent a nominee, it's hard to game out which party might benefit, although, as Third Way notes, independents are key to the president's re-election bid. Conversely, to the extent that third parties tend to be an outlet for anti-incumbent sentiment, the group could drain away votes from the Republican nominee.
In this grumpy time, Americans Elect is a phenomenon worth watching.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group