Group Aiming To Bypass Party Politics Hits Bumps Americans Elect is trying to run the first online primary to choose a presidential ticket, and get it on the ballot in all 50 states. But the group is having trouble attracting big-name candidates and refuses to name its financial backers.
NPR logo

Group Aiming To Bypass Party Politics Hits Bumps

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Group Aiming To Bypass Party Politics Hits Bumps

Group Aiming To Bypass Party Politics Hits Bumps

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here in the U.S., a political group is trying to work outside the two-party system. It's called Americans Elect, and it's attempting to run the first online primary. The goal? To get its presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50 states. So far, the group is halfway to that goal. But as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, Americans Elect still has no candidate to elect, and it's struggling with the deficit of enthsusiam.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: The people who run Americans Elect say they represent the neglected middle of the political spectrum. They say they speak for voters who care more about solving problems than winning partisan battles. So Americans Elect created an online process for ordinary citizens to nominate a presidential candidate outside the two-party system. The group has attracted some big-name supporters - New Jersey Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who once was governor, and William Webster, former head of both the CIA and the FBI. They also draw top brass at big companies like Starbucks and E*TRADE and major scholars, like Harvard's Lawrence Lessig.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: I was originally quite opposed to what they were trying to do because I thought it was nothing more than an opportunity for a spoiler.

SEABROOK: Lessig was wary of political mischief: someone trying to run a third-party candidate just to hurt the chances of a major party nominee. But after thinking about it, Lessig said, he decided the most important issue to him this year is overhauling the election system itself.

LESSIG: It became clear. This was maybe the only way to get this issue before the American people or at least to get into a context where the two major party candidates had to address it. And the elegance of what Americans Elect had created then seemed to be a perfect path for that objective.

SEABROOK: There are a few problems, though. The biggest one? Americans Elect has had trouble finding top tier candidates willing to run. The most popular name on the group's website right now is Ron Paul, the Republican candidate. He's already said no to both the Libertarian Party and to Americans Elect.

Among those willing to run, the most popular right now is former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, hardly a household name.

The CEO of Americans Elect, Kahlil Byrd, says there may be fresh candidates coming onboard in the next few weeks. That could help attract the attention of more voters who, Byrd says, are looking for leaders.

KAHLIL BYRD: They're not inspired by the idea of creating another party or centrism, etc. A few people are, but most people are not. What they're inspired by is the idea of leaders stepping up and actually doing things that help the jobs situation.

SEABROOK: If it's inspiring, if it's what everybody wanted, if it's what there is this hunger for, why hasn't it taken off?

BYRD: For me, I think it's very sensitive at this point to candidates emerging.

SEABROOK: Another cloud that's hovered over the new group is its refusal to name its financial backers. Americans Elect is organized as a nonprofit group under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Because it isn't a political party, it isn't required to tell where its millions of dollars come from. It could volunteer the information, but it doesn't. I asked Byrd why.

BYRD: What we found, as we were going and standing up the organization, is that there was the deepest concern amongst people who had been very successful in this world that those who are in power or who work in politics would use this as an opportunity for retribution. So we gave people a choice.

SEABROOK: But any donor to any political party could say, I don't want the other side to know because I'll face retribution.

BYRD: I think that people who are trying to do something as disruptive as Americans Elect - there was real concern and the concerns about retribution were real in the people who made the decision to grow this organization.

SEABROOK: There's another money problem here. Americans Elect has pledged its largest donors that it will pay them most of their money back. The idea, according to the group, is that no one donor would have disproportionate control over the process, but functionally, it means that any money smaller donors give to Americans Elect isn't adding to its funds. It's going to pay back the original wealthy donors.

Matt Bennett, of the centrist think tank Third Way, says the biggest problem Americans Elect has right now is that it doesn't have a candidate yet.

MATT BENNETT: If there was a public face for Americans Elect, then people would be able to decide where they stand. If it was somebody truly centrist and different and a breath of fresh air, that would be one thing, or if it looked like sort of a party hack who was trying to revive an otherwise failing presidential campaign, that'd be another.

SEABROOK: With no public face, Bennett says voters can't tell what the group stands for, and since Americans Elect won't disclose its donors, a politically skeptical public may not take them at their word.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.