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Americans Elect: Big Money, More Centrist Choices

David Callahan

One irritating thing about rich people nowadays is their boundless faith that they can solve society’s most daunting problems – whether it’s underperforming schools or the AIDS epidemic. Yet just because someone made a bundle trading stocks or developing software doesn’t mean they’re equally brilliant in other areas.

The latest example is Americans Elect, an ambitious effort by wealthy individuals to circumvent the two-party political system in order to give voters a “centrist” choice in next year’s presidential election. Never mind that we already have a centrist candidate – President Obama, who has repeatedly sold out progressives to cut deals with the GOP. The real problem with Americans Elect is that it exacerbates the biggest flaw in our political system: the dominance of money.

Americans Elect aims to get a nonpartisan candidate on the ballot in all 50 states and has already secured ballot access in 24 states, including Florida and Ohio, by gathering over 2 million signatures.

Collecting signatures is an expensive business. According to, supporters of state ballot initiatives in 2010 paid an average of $3.29 to get each signature. Americans Elect says it has raised over $20 million and, to be sure, some of that money has come in the form of small donations. The group also says that it will repay its major early donors so that no individual gives more than the $10,000. But this whole effort has been instigated by wealthy individuals, most notably the former investment banker Peter Ackerman, who has donated over $1.5 million to Americans Elect.

Americans Elect is planning an “online primary” next year in which ordinary voters will purportedly choose a “nominee.” (Nobody is yet running for this honor.) But, according to the election law scholar Richard Hansen, writing last week in Politico, this “process can, in fact, be overruled by a small board of directors, who organized the group.” In addition, Americans Elect is refusing to disclose its donors.

What we have here, in other words, is a case of secret money bankrolling a process that, in the end, is controlled by a select group of insiders, not by ordinary voters. How is that an improvement over the “politics as usual” that Americans Elect says it wants to displace?

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