White House to Americans Elect: We've Got Our Eye on You

| Wed Dec. 14, 2011 2:30 PM EST

For an object lesson on how not to run a third-party movement, see Americans Elect.

It's an upstart political reform group that wants to create its own "balanced" ticket to run in next year's presidential elections. But first, Americans Elect has to get on the ballot in all fifty states. To that end, it is raising millions of dollars and recruiting volunteers in all 50 states to collect the requisite number of signatures to get its candidate on the ballot (for more details, read my story on the group). In June, it will hold an online primary where registered voters can go to the group's website to vote for a candidate who isn't beholden to Democratic or Republican interests.

But campaign finance reform groups like Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center are sounding the alarm. Late last year, Americans Elect became a 501(c)(4) organization—the same classification as Crossroads GPS and other dark money outfits. Under tax law, such groups are not permitted to make political advocacy the majority of their activity. They also don't have to publicly disclose their donors, who have already contributed over $20 million to the group. Reformers have also taken issue with Americans Elect's shadowy "Candidate Certification Committee"—populated by a cadre of former politicians, political operatives, and wealthy financiers. That body, critics say, could potentially overrule whatever ballot line voters create in the online nominating convention next June. But the group insists that the committee is designed only to ensure the ticket is sufficiently balanced.

So the notion that the group wants to open up the electoral process without opening up its own internal processes is kind of hilarious. The White House seems to think so too, but acknowledges the potential problems it could present, the National Journal reports:

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In a meeting with reporters [on Tuesday], Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and top strategist David Axelrod said they expected the group, Americans Elect, to be on the ballot in most states next year. And though the group says it will use the most open, democratic process possible to select a nominee, Obama's campaign is questioning both their means and motives. . . . "You have to get approved by a council of elders deal," Messina told reporters Tuesday. Added Axelrod: "It's like uber-democracy meets backroom bosses. An amalgam of both."

The problem for the Obama campaign could get very real, very quickly. If Americans Elect comes up with a well-known, well-financed candidate, they have the potential to throw a major monkey wrench in both parties' plans. The group has already gained ballot access in ten states, including in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

"What's clear is they will be on the ballot in most states," Messina said. "And that's just something we have to deal with."

Obviously, the White House views Americans Elect as a potential political liability, one that could put forward a ticket that siphons Democratic votes. Their concerns may be justified; because Americans Elect doesn't have to disclose where its money is coming from, there's no way of knowing whose interests it represents.

The group does appear to be trying be more transparent, albeit halfassedly. Back on November 29, it posted several "audited 2010 financial statements" on its website. But the frustratingly unspecific documents only run through last December, and include few details about who is funding the group and how money is being spent. Which brings us back to the fundamental problem of Americans Elect. The group's leaders don't seem to understand that no matter how many times they go on MSNBC to talk up the virtues of a more-accessible political system, they simply aren't walking the walk. 

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