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We have a president whose approval rating remains well south of 50 percent. We have a Congress whose approval rating in one recent poll slipped below 10 percent. And we have overwhelming numbers of Americans saying they're dissatisfied with their government.
Now a group called Americans Elect is testing just how deep the unhappiness runs. The nonprofit group has scheduled a press conference here in Washington, a bid to show the Democratic and Republican establishments that voters want a third choice. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The chairman of Americans Elect is Peter Ackerman, a Wall Street investor and philanthropist. In a speech last year, he laid out his hope of what Americans Elect will become.
PETER ACKERMAN: A new force that will come to play in a system that's struggling and that's giving so little satisfaction to the American people.
OVERBY: 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, Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2000. But that's not what Americans Elect says it's about.
KAHLIL BYRD: We're not a political party and don't have an aspiration to be.
OVERBY: That's Kahlil Byrd, a political consultant who's now 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. And 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.
Here's how the group's deputy press secretary, Padmananda Rama, explained it a few weeks ago at a conference for entrepreneurs.
PADMANANDA RAMA: We do everything pretty much on the Internet anyway, so this is a way that Americans can have a direct nomination process. You choose who you want to have as a presidential candidate.
OVERBY: The group has a long roster of leadership figures. It includes veteran consultants from both parties, raising questions about ulterior motives and ultimate loyalties. Democrat Les Frances says he signed up with Americans Elect because he wants to save the moderate center of American politics.
LES FRANCES: With the caveat that at some point between now and November of 2012, I may decide that I would rather cast my lot with President Obama's reelection.
OVERBY: 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. That's because several months ago it changed itself from a political committee to a social welfare organization under Section 501(c)4 of the tax code. Again, Kahlil Byrd.
BYRD: The organization is a nonprofit organization that is creating a civic good in the political space.
OVERBY: Watchdog groups that advocate for more transparency have asked the Internal Revenue Service to reexamine American Elect's tax status. Paul Ryan is a lawyer with one of those groups, the Campaign Legal Center.
PAUL RYAN: They're going about choosing their presidential ticket differently than the more mainstream political parties have historically. 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.
OVERBY: But at Americans Elect, Byrd says that in today's bitter partisan climate, donors would face dangers of retribution.
BYRD: And we realize that supporting this organization is a small but significant act of courage, and that people need to be encouraged to emerge at their own pace, disclosing whether they've given a dollar or much more than that.
OVERBY: Americans Elect says it has more than 3,000 donors. About a dozen have given at least $100,000. But only one is identified. Peter Ackerman, the chairman, has put in $5 million.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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